On our first dive outing, my husband and I repeated, “We live here,” dumbfounded, as the boat’s captain steered us through the Rock Islands, which from a distance had looked like prehistoric elephants fossilized in a turquoise lagoon. We had just moved to Palau, an island nation in western Micronesia, and while micro was the operative descriptor—only nine of some 340 islands are inhabited, total population 20,000—the world felt magnified. Up close, we could see how eons of erosion and algae-grazing mollusks had chiseled the islands’ limestone bases so that they erupted from the surface like massive toadstools, dense with palm trees and starry elilai flowers.
The psychedelic experience was heightened underwater. We dropped anchor and slid Alice-in-Wonderland style down, down, into the otherworld of Big Drop-Off. Here was a 900-foot vertical reef wall that buckled and curved hypnotically with colonies of soft and hard coral—which are animals! my inner fifth grader shouted. As we drifted 60 feet below the surface, our guide pointed out nurse sharks with pups down below, and hawksbill turtles foraging in the branch coral overhead.
Palau has been a diver’s and snorkeler’s fantasy destination ever since Jacques Cousteau rolled up with his Aqua-Lung in the 1960s. Its Southern Lagoon, an uninhabited island cluster of complex reefs and marine lakes, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Jellyfish Lake, on Eil Malk Island, floats you dreamlike among millions of stingless golden jellies. Blue Corner, near Ngemelis Island, often ranked among the world’s best dives, promises a seemingly choreographed dance of chummy Napoleon wrasse, sea turtles, and schools of barracuda swirling past rays and sharks. My first sighting of barrel-rolling black mantas at German Channel reduced me to awestruck tears.
But Palau’s reefs, like all reefs, are endangered—threatened by commercial fishing and illegal shark finning, which raid the food chain, and by climate change. Warming ocean temperatures bleach coral, and typhoons can leave damaged reefs in their wake. Rising seas swallow shorelines, shrinking an already limited resource of habitable land.
It may be one of the tiniest countries on Earth, but Palau’s efforts to combat this Goliath of forces are outsize. In 2009, Palau designated the world’s first “Shark Sanctuary.” To protect sharks, which play a key role in reef ecosystems, shark finning and other fishing practices that threaten sharks were banned.
In 2015, Palau went further, declaring 80 percent of its Exclusive Economic Zone—an area roughly the size of France that’s mostly ocean—a Marine Protected Area where fishing and drilling are prohibited. Islanders will tell you it’s a Western version of a Palauan tradition called bul, in which clan chiefs call a moratorium on fishing when certain species or reefs need regeneration. When you survive by the ocean, environmentalism isn’t a trend; it’s tradition.
Research shows the measures are working. Fish stocks and predator populations are up, and we’ve grown accustomed to a rotating cast of marine biologists and PhDs studying Palau’s comparatively healthy reefs.
But Goliath roars back. In the 2016 El Niño heat wave, the island’s worst drought in 65 years, the jellyfish vanished from their eponymous lake. It’s an event that happened once before, in 1999, and it took almost two years for the jellyfish population to recover. For now, the lake is closed to visitors.
Now, in addition to imploring other countries to take up the Paris Climate Accord, Palau’s president has focused on human impact, limiting flights from China, Palau’s largest source of visitors, and proposing rules that would restrict future tourist development to luxury, five-star hotels only. It’s a Bhutan-style measure he hopes will mean fewer visitors (with bigger vacation budgets) and thus healthier reefs.
So you may have to save for it, or wait your turn, but do experience this wonder-inducing micro-corner of our planet, and realize this while you can: We all live here.