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The Global Reef Expedition: Palau

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

Aerial view of Seventy Islands or Ngerukewid Islands, Palau. The Ngerukewid Islands or Seventy Islands are Palau's iconic island landscape symbolizing pristine beauty.  The Seventy Islands (literally translated from Palau's name Ngerukuid meaning seventy).   These islands are part of the Rock Islands an archipelago that includes approximately 250 to 300 islands in the group.  The Islands were in part formed from limestone of accent coral reefs and coral uprisings.  The Rock Islands are a World Heritage Site since 2012.
Aerial view of Seventy Islands or Ngerukewid Islands, Palau. The Ngerukewid Islands or Seventy Islands are Palau’s iconic island landscape symbolizing pristine beauty. The Islands were in part formed from limestone of accent coral reefs and coral uprisings. The Rock Islands are a World Heritage Site since 2012.

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.

A large school of Golden Sweepers (Parapriacanthus ransonneti) passing by a health reef.
A large school of Golden Sweepers (Parapriacanthus ransonneti) passing by a health reef.

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.

Jellyfish Lake

Jellyfish Lake is an isolated marine lake with millions of non-stinging Golden Jellyfish (Mastigias papua etpisoni).
Jellyfish Lake is an isolated marine lake with millions of non-stinging Golden Jellyfish (Mastigias papua etpisoni).

Jellyfish Lake - PalauOne 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

Along the wall of a coral reef Pink Anemonefish seek shelter within the tentacles of a a Magnificent Anemone that has curled up to reveal its vibrant purple underside.
Along the wall of a coral reef Pink Anemonefish seek shelter within the tentacles of a a Magnificent Anemone that has curled up to reveal its vibrant purple underside.

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.

An aerial view some of Palau's most famous scuba diving locations called "Blue Corner", "New Drop Off", "Big Drop Off".  From the coast the underwater topography of the corner is clearly visible descending out to sea.
An aerial view some of Palau’s most famous scuba diving locations called “Blue Corner”, “New Drop Off”, “Big Drop Off”. From the coast the underwater topography of the corner is clearly visible descending out to sea.
An intimate view of a large Humphead or Napoleon Wrasse swimming along the coral reef.
An intimate view of a large Humphead or Napoleon Wrasse swimming along the coral reef.

The Coral Reef Research and Environmental Issues

Scientist taking samples of hard coral (Pocillopora sp.) to study photosynthetic capabilities of the coral.
Scientist taking samples of hard coral (Pocillopora sp.) to study photosynthetic capabilities of the coral.

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.

A large hard coral (Porites sp.) with numerous burrowing tube worms and Christmas tree worms groaning within the coral colony.  The coral also show numerous  patches of dead or stressed spots.
A large hard coral (Porites sp.) with numerous burrowing tube worms and Christmas tree worms groaning within the coral colony. The coral also show numerous patches of dead or stressed spots.
This image shows partial mortality of a large colony of Table Coral (Acropora sp.) most likely due to disease. On the left healthy colony of coral and on the right is mortality.
This image shows partial mortality (right half) of a large colony of Table Coral (Acropora sp.) most likely due to disease.

Underwater Wrecks

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.

An unidentified 100ft Japanese Fishing Boat lies at 75ft at the edge of the shipping lane.
An unidentified 100ft Japanese Fishing Boat lies at 75ft at the edge of the shipping lane.
A Japanese Aichi E13A Navy Type 0 seaplane Fighter at a depth of aproximately 50ft. It was a long-range reconnaissance seaplane used by the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II from 1941 to 1945.
A Japanese Aichi E13A Navy Type 0 seaplane Fighter at a depth of aproximately 50ft. It was a long-range reconnaissance seaplane used by the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II from 1941 to 1945.

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.

A school of fish called Fusiliers dart away as a Grey Reef Shark hunts within the blue water along the edge of a coral reef.
A school of fish called Fusiliers dart away as a Grey Reef Shark hunts within the blue water along the edge of a coral reef.

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.

Thank you

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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The Golden Shadow is a science and research vessel used by the Living Oceans Foundation to conduct coral reef research.  Here it's off the coast of Babeldaob Island, Republic of Palau.
The Golden Shadow is a science and research vessel used by the Living Oceans Foundation to conduct coral reef research. Here it’s off the coast of Babeldaob Island, Republic of Palau.

Comments

  1. Art Bookstein
    Newton
    July 27, 2015, 8:25 pm

    Hi Keith,

    I just saw a program on the Great Barrier Reef and thought of you. Your photography is wonderful! It is great to see that you are thriving!

    Best,

    Art Bookstein

  2. Bonnie Hausman
    Newton, MA
    March 19, 2015, 9:47 pm

    These photos are amazing! I’m sharing with my children who know Keith and appreciate his work as well as with my two grandsons who are so intrigued by life in the sea. Thanks, Keith, you are so brave (and talented).

  3. Joan geller
    Italy
    March 18, 2015, 7:02 pm

    Magic to take us places deep under water. These photos are rich buried treasures , thanks!

  4. Christiana Groenewoud
    March 11, 2015, 1:49 am

    Be-au-tiful!!!!

  5. Christiana Groenewoud
    Cape Town
    March 11, 2015, 1:48 am

    Be-au-tiful!!!