This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic Voices blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.
Text and photos by iLCP Fellow Keith Ellenbogen
Palau’s Archipelago — A Nation of Islands and Reefs
As part of the third iLCP Expedition organized with the Khaled Bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation (KSLOF), I joined a team of scientists to explore the marine environment in the Pacific archipelago of Palau. The KSLOF is conducting currently one of the largest coral reef studies in history. Called the Global Reef Expedition, it is circumnavigating the globe surveying some of the most remote reefs on the planet, and iLCP photographers have joined them on a few keys stops to help document their finds. Recently iLCP’s Michele Westmorland joined them in French Polynesia, and Jürgen Freund in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. It’s now my turn to hop aboard the M/Y Golden Shadow to explore the reefs of Palau.
Palau is an archipelago located within the Western Pacific Ocean and is part of the Island group called Micronesia. Palau’s Islands are made of limestone and covered by a mosaic of tropical plants that highlight the landscape with a luminous green. Beneath the surface (from an aerial point of view) tinted in shades of blue are vibrant coral reef communities that are teaming with life.
The scientists conducted environmental research and data collection to assess the health of Palau’s coral reefs. A major component of the surveys was focusing on commercially important reef fishes and invertebrates, such as groupers, sea cucumbers, and crustaceans. The scientists also took note of the health of these reef communities and any stressors that could affect them, like the coral-eating Crown of Thorns Seastar, coral diseases, or ocean acidification. In addition the scientists were comparing marine protected areas with those that do not have protection to make an evaluation of marine management strategies.
Within the coral reefs of Palau there are approximately 400 species of hard corals, 300 species of soft corals, and 1400 species of reef fish. Palau is internationally renown for its beautiful landscapes and seascapes as well as its biological significance to the environment. The iconic view of the Ngerukewid Islands also known as the ‘Seventy Islands’ are part of Palau’s Rock Island Group, a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its environmental significance.
One of the most unique habitats in Palau is Jellyfish Lake located within the Rock Island group on Eli Malk Island. As part of our expedition, Palau’s park rangers accompanied us to the world famous lake to explore this unique and diverse aquatic habitat. This isolated marine lake harbors millions of non-stinging Golden Jellyfish (Mastigias papua etpisoni). After a twenty-minute hike up a steep vertical path with two large cases of underwater camera equipment and lights we arrived by the emerald colored water. It’s a short swim to the center of the lake where we were surrounded by jellyfish. While I tried not to touch the jellyfish many accidentally brush up against my skin. The sensation is spiritual and feels like being touched by an angel through a series of soft kisses. These delicate creatures are uniquely evolved due to their isolation within the lake. Each day the jellyfish ascend from the depths to the surface to harness the sun rays. They have a symbiotic relationship with algae to photosynthesize the sun’s energy into sugars that are metabolized by the jellyfish.
The Coral Reefs of Palau
Each day traveling through sometimes calm and often rough seas, our investigation of the coral reef’s health took us to a variety of extraordinary habitats: inshore lagoons, shallow banks and deep ocean reefs. In addition we explored vertical wall habitats that include a view into ‘blue water’ where larger pelagic fish such as sharks cruise the reef through typically strong tidal current. From an aerial point of view the underwater topography and converging seascape form an ‘elbow-shape’ that is clearly visible. This geographic location is one of the most popular tourist sites for divers, highlighting a connection between tourism and healthy marine ecosystem. Tourism in Palau is one of the primary industries and attracts people from all over the world to see iconic marine animals such as Napoleon Wrasses, Green Sea Turtles, and large schools of Bigeye Trevally.
The Coral Reef Research and Environmental Issues
Coral reefs are dependent on healthy oceans to survive and are under environmental threats due to overfishing, global climate change, ocean acidification, pollution as well as natural disasters such as tropical storms. As part of the surveys, scientists collected samples of a hard coral Pocillopora sp. to study their photosynthetic capabilities. Other scientists were conducting benthic surveys as well as researching coral stresses such as the presence of the coral eating Crown-of-Thorns Seastar and coral disease to gauge the overall health of Palau’s coral reef.
Beneath the surface of Palau are a series of shipwrecks and airplanes that reveal insights into our history. During World War II Palau was viewed as an important strategic location for The United States of America. It was also the location of the famous Battle of Pelleliu in which many American and Japanese solders lost their lives. Today, The Republic of Palau is an independent and sovereign nation. However, scattered along the coast in the form of wrecks are the remnants of a tumultuous past. Many of these shipwrecks within Palau are from wars, others from navigational accidents and storms, and even others are artificially sunk. Over time these wrecks provide structure for corals and fish and are visited by tourists.
Apex Predators – Sharks
In deep water, along the edge of the coral reef, Grey Reef Sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos) cruise effortlessly in search of prey. Their presence alerts a school of fish called fusiliers feeding in that area. Like sitting in a living IMAX theatre, I watched the small fish dart away as sharks swam by over and over again. I photographed this image to show the scale of the sea, the movement, and the presence of sharks. Grey Reef Sharks like all sharks are apex predators and icons of healthy ocean environments.
However, sharks worldwide are under environmental pressure from overfishing and illegal fishing practices, shark finning, pollution, climate change and more. Environmental and conservation based organizations such as the KSLOF and the iLCP are focused on protecting marine environments through scientific research and educating about our most precious resource — the oceans.
I would personally like to thank the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation and the International League of Conservation Photographers for their support.
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