I arrived in Palau in 1994 with all of my worldly possessions stuffed into two duffel bags. One carried my rafting kit from adventures on rivers across the US. The other was SCUBA gear from my career of teaching diving and leading tours. With a degree in zoology from Oregon State and life mission to help preserve all the Earth’s creatures, I always added as much natural history teaching to my trips as rafting and diving guests could endure—and on my Palau Snorkeling and Sea Kayaking trips with Wilderness Travel, I do the same!
In my new island home, I watched in horror as countless long-line fishing boats cruised the harbor with illegally caught shark fins brazenly hung out to dry on their bow rails. The sight was more than I could bear. After exhausting all political and social attempts at eliminating the practice of shark finning, I finally decided to save the sharks myself! Every day after work, I led teams of boat captains and fellow dive guides up the sides of shark fishing vessels and removed the fins, destroying the catch in waters too deep to recover. This caught the attention of the Discovery Channel, which subsequently aired a special titled “Predators in Peril.” This international attention encouraged Palau’s leadership to take steps to curb shark fishing.
Palauans have, for 4,000 years, made their living from the sea. The isolated nature of the archipelago has placed the population in a position where their food security depends upon sustainable use. If a particular food resource becomes scarce (for example bumphead parrotfish), the chiefs declare a “buul,” or closure, until the species recovers. This inherent sense of stewardship survived European colonization, Japanese Imperialism, as well as the traumas of WWII. President Tommy Remengesau, or “T.R.” as he’s known locally, has reinvigorated this sense of stewardship by leading a “buul” campaign to protect our open-ocean resources, reminding his community of their responsibility to protect the sea. Economies rise and fall, but the ocean will always provide, if cared for and protected. This message resonated throughout the community and in October, 2015, Palau was declared an official marine sanctuary—one of the largest marine protected areas on our planet.
My small part in this saga has been to illuminate the miraculous diversity of open-ocean sharks, fish, and cetaceans who live in Palau’s waters. At the first anniversary celebration of the marine sanctuary, I gave a talk on the 16 species of marine mammals my team has tracked in Palau. I told the crowd about the mighty sperm whale, the world’s largest toothed whale—at least 18 distinct pods of over 200 individuals make their way through Palau’s seas. A more recent find of ours is a pod of Risso’s dolphins who have taken to visiting Palau’s Rock Islands seasonally over the last three years. And then there is the resident pod of melon-headed whales, known as shy animals but who now actively engage with me and any visitor I bring by. The proud Paulauan community is on track to protect their astounding natural treasures, with everyone from the local judges to school teachers wanting to join the search for Palau’s most precious wonders. I salute them!
-Text and photos by WT Trip Leader Ron Leidich, Palau Sea Kayaking & Snorkeling