Underwater World (Palau, Part 2 of 4)
While in Palau, I added to my lifetime hours of snorkeling by factors of ten. As a novice, I was in that delicious “beginner’s mind” world where everything seemed wondrous. Our guide, Ron Leidich, is a lifelong biologist/naturalist and knows every fish, coral, seagrass, and underwater mammal (yes, we saw one) in that azure water. Although I don’t remember most of the names, I do remember his utter enthusiasm about the subterranean world of Palau, and his joy in sharing it with us as if for the first time.
Christa Sadler, who put the journey together, is also a naturalist and career wilderness guide. Her advice the first day was priceless: just hover on the surface and watch the interactions among the fish, how they move and where they like to go. Avoid trying to follow just one fish but rather, watch the whole scene.
It’s a happy fact that coral is thriving in Palau, which lies within the “Coral Triangle” (what Ron calls the “earth’s underwater Amazon”), home to the greatest marine diversity on the planet. We saw a natural treasure trove of coral, including one wonderful day witnessing bone-china-fragile basket corals. I learned that brain coral grows where there’s lots of current but not much sun in places such as what Ron named Darwin’s Wall and Einstein’s Garden.
In 2001, Palau established a marine sanctuary for sharks (see sharksanctuary.com). These beleaguered, misunderstood—and important—keystone creatures have been slaughtered for their fins. Because of this sanctuary, they are on the rebound. With unethical fishing practices being tightly monitored and rules being enforced, the regeneration of sharks along with many other species—and sea turtles, too!—is encouraging. Nowadays, Ron said, the animals seem less gunshy of the humans who come to see them through their masks and shoot them only with digital photography.
Because of Ron’s intimate awareness of the effects of the moon on tides and of the uninhabited islands where we were camping, we were able to reach some really remote places, including marine lakes with hidden tunnel entries. Photos cannot begin to capture the many colors and hues of the place. The fish were so various and colorful, and the coral (which picks up the colors of the algae that inhabit it sort of willy-nilly) were a mosaic of beauty.
Ron also took us to a hidden spot where he is planting clams in hopes of preserving them from poachers. The clams we held and then set gently about 10-12 feet down on the seabed will grow, we’re told, to 3-4 feet across if left alone. They’ll need to be in their teens before they can reproduce.
We saw...everything. One day, we even went in search of seahorses. We knew it would be challenging to find these tiny, shy critters, so when Ron located one, we were thrilled. Then, maybe not surprisingly, my terrestrial-minded equestrian mind located the only other one we saw that day!
We snorkeled four or five times a day for eight days (when we weren’t sea kayaking or touring some of the islands for their rich cultural and WWII histories). As a mid-Pacific location, the water was welcoming, warm, soft, easy (most of the time). I never got cold, which I really appreciated. I enjoyed every minute in the water on this special journey.