Words Sanya Shahrasbi and Nabil Michael Barbir
Far off in the corner of the world, nestled in Micronesia, lies an isolated country of unparalleled beauty, with white sandy beaches and turquoise waters as far as the eye can see: Palau.
According to the Palauan legends, it is said that “Before there were people and land, there were only Palauan gods and the sea. One day, Uchelianged, the supreme god of heaven, looked down upon his vast emptiness and said, ‘Let there arise a land.’ A volcanic rock then rose from the sea. and upon this barren land sat a giant clam. Soon its belly began to swell and tremble, and it grew larger and larger, as if ready to give birth. Uchelianged saw this and said, ‘Let there be a strong running sea.’ So the wind began to blow and waves crashed around the clam, causing it to burst open. From it poured swarms of the first sea creatures to swim Palau. They in turn gave birth and the once empty seas were soon teaming with life, from the smallest sea worm to human forms. And with this one dramatic and spectacular beginning, Palau was born.”
The more than 200 islands that make up Palau are home to around 20,000 inhabitants, mostly indigenous Palauan. Inhabiting primarily the islands of Koror, Anguar, Babeldaob, and Peleliu, Micronesians populated the islands in successive migrations originating from the Philippines, to the west, some 3,000 years ago. Because they live in a scattered network crisscrossing the various islands, community identity and connection plays a central role in islanders’ lives. In fact, the word “Palau” originally comes from the word “buluu” (Pelew) which is Palauan for “village.”
Preserving the ocean
The ocean plays a very central role in Palau’s cultural norms and traditions, as it is the main source of vital resources. As a result, preserving the ocean that surrounds them is an imperative for Palauans. Pioneers in the Pacific region for their conservation initiatives, Palauans embody President Tommy Remengesau, Jr.’s adage to “Preserve the best, and improve the rest.” Internationally, they are particularly respected for their dedication to ecological conservation. Palau created a Protected Areas Network (PAN) that brought the community and government together to protect marine ecosystems. They spearheaded the Micronesia Challenge, an initiative that proposed conserving at least 30 percent of the land and resources near the coast and 20 percent of the terrestrial life by 2020. The Marshall Islands, Guam, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Northern Mariana Islands followed Palau’s lead, pledging to conserve a sizeable portion of the Micronesian marine habitat. One of the country’s most notable achievements was the creation of the world’s first shark sanctuary in 2009, banning all commercial shark fishing in its Exclusive Economic Zone, an area of more than 600,000 square kilometers of ocean. Its success in protecting its ocean and its unique biodiversity makes Palau one of the most attractive tourist sites in the Asia Pacific region, in particular for tourists who are concerned about the environment.
An underwater paradise
This tiny island nation is among the planet’s top sites for scuba diving and eco-tourism. This untouched paradise boasts a phenomenal array of underwater biodiversity: More than a thousand species of fish and over 700 species of coral thrive in Palauan waters. The ocean preservation group known as CEDAM named it one of the Seven Wonders of the Underwater World, comparable to the Blue Hole in Belize, the Galapagos, and the Great Barrier Reef.
Every year hundreds of divers come to Palau to immerse themselves in this exotic underwater paradise. The Palauan dedication to shark preservation attracts marine enthusiasts from all over the world, as divers are almost guaranteed to see a shark in its natural habitat! Divers may also encounter manta rays, dolphins, and different species of turtles during their dives. Luckily, these divers have many different scuba-diving sites available to them around the island. There are over 30 locations that are equipped for amateur and professional divers. Experienced guides lead tourists into the underwater world of Palau, showing them a seafloor covered with vibrantly colored coral reefs. These reefs house thousands of marine species, from exuberant sea fans to playful clownfish. On the seafloor giant manta rays roam alongside racing dolphins; turtles and dugongs lazily lounge around.
The Rock Islands
Although Palau is not large, it boasts a wide variety of attractions. One of these is the Rock Island Southern Lagoon. The Rock Islands consist of 445 islands, with a total of 100 to 200 acres of mostly uninhabited land. Made from coral and limestone rocks, this particular archipelago became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012. It is respected and protected by all members of the international community, and is one of the signature sightseeing destinations of Palau. Daily kayaking tours are organized, giving visitors the opportunity to explore the Rock Islands’ inside lagoons, limestone tunnels, indigenous Palauan villages, and hidden sandy beaches.
These tours usually include a scuba dive within the lagoons.
The Rock Islands offer fantastic hiking sites that allow tourists to witness Palau’s unique vegetation, including over 1,200 species of plants, insects, reptiles, and amphibians. The hike ends at the highest peak of the Rock Islands, where there is a historical lighthouse dating from the period of German control of the islands in the 19th century.
One of Palau’s most memorable landmarks is an isolated lake on Eli Malk Island, dubbed the “Jellyfish Lake.” This saltwater lake, one of some 70 others nestled among the Rock Islands, is unique in that it is home to several million golden jellyfish (Mastigias papua etpisoni), which fill the water as they migrate from one side of the lake to the other. As the jellyfish migrate horizontally across the surface of the lake to seek exposure to the sun, swimmers can immerse themselves in this surreal sea of golden jellyfish, as their stings are too weak to be felt by human skin. Palau has obtained international assistance from the chairman of the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO to preserve and fund research on this astounding ecological niche.
Palau is one of the last untouched, authentic paradises of our world. Palauans are a society that values its biodiversity and nature, making it a prime destination for eco-tourists. Come immerse yourself in this pristine paradise. Under the gleaming tropical sun, bury your toes in the warm white sand with an exotic fruit cocktail in your hand!
“This article was provided by the Permanent Delegation of the Republic of Palau to UNESCO. Palau has had the delegation since 2013, largely thanks to its ambassador, H. E. Mr. Taha Azmi Mikati.”