Above: Palau’s Rock Islands comprise more than 250 limestone islets and outcrops, and are home to some of the country’s best dive site.
Swimming with jellyfish and exploring pristine coral reefs are just part of the allure of Palau, a remote island republic where eco-consciousness runs deep. Could this be one of the world’s last true paradises?
By Aaron Gulley
Photographs By Jen Judge
If you ever find yourself jetting 10,000 meters above the western reaches of Micronesia on a cloudless, full-moon night, take a minute to look out your window. Really, do it: turn off the in-flight movie, close the overpriced novel you bought at the airport, and peer out at what’s below.
Nothing—for as far as the eye can see.
The lunar glow casts the ocean in a crackling skin of faintly electric veins, like so many tiny silver fish flitting across the surface. From the horizon, the sky fades from inky black to sullen gray as it nears the big disk of the moon. Check the other side of the plane, and it’s the same eerie infinity.
Then, just as you have convinced yourself that there can’t possibly be anything down there, the captain announces the flight’s imminent arrival in the Republic of Palau. “It’s an awful nice night out there,” he reports with a Texas drawl, repeating himself in Japanese for good measure. It’s still all blackness outside, no twinkling city lights for reference, but as the aircraft descends, you think you can almost make out the pinpricks of the islands. Then, boom, you’re down, and whooooosh, the Boeing 737 roars to a stop. Still, since you’re sitting on the starboard—the side that faces away from the airport—the only things you can see are the oily tarmac and the glaucous, billowy silhouette of jungle canopy in the distance. And at that moment you probably think, Damn, if this place isn’t isolated.
As you’ll soon find out, that is only half the truth.
Scattered across the western Pacific some 800 kilometers east of the Philippines and roughly the same distance above the equator, the islands of Palau—all 300 or so of them—have a combined land area equivalent to two-thirds that of Singapore, and a population of just 21,000 people. No major shipping routes pass by and only a few flights a week touch down here, mostly masochistic red-eyes connecting from Guam that often run at half capacity or less. Which is to say that, at first glance, Palau is indeed what it looks like from the dipping wing of a jumbo jet: a tropical void that barely registers on any map, much less the tourist circuit. And that’s precisely what has brought me here.
When the wheels touch down, I become one of about 80,000 travelers who visit Palau annually. It’s safe to assume that upon arrival, a few of them are as surprised as I am by the archipelago’s dirty little secret: Palau has few pristine, postcard-perfect beaches. On the most populous island, Koror, there’s exactly one: a beautifully manicured swath of white sand that was trucked in by the Palau Pacific Resort and is raked each morning with a John Deere tractor. What inspires so many visitors, myself included, to make their way out here lies beyond the tide: Kool-Aid blue waters stuffed with psychedelic corals, spangled fish as big as Smart cars, and scrums of toothy sharks.
So many swimming things churn around Palau that you’d think someone had spiked the waters with yohimbine. The fact is, cultivating some of the best-stocked seas in the world has taken work. Palauans have long depended on and respected the ocean, and the country’s leaders have shown a prescience in their conservation policy almost unknown elsewhere on the planet. In campaigns and speeches, Palau’s previous president, Tommy E. Remengesau Jr., often trotted out a sparkly little environmental slogan: “Preserve the best, and protect the rest.” Practically every single Palauan I speak to during my visit conjures up the mantra. It’s as if they’ve been coached. Or they actually took it to heart.
Even more astonishing: Remengesau stood by his words. In 2005, he committed to preserving 30 percent of the country’s coastal waters and 20 percent of its land within 15 years. Today, the protections already extend to approximately 42 percent of the waters and 18 percent of the land. Find me another politician who makes good so quickly on his sound bites, and I’ll find you a country with healthier seas than Palau.
Realizing that the republic’s waters would only be as healthy as the oceans surrounding them, Remengesau called on his neighbors—the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and the U.S. territories of Guam and the Mariana Islands—to institute the same 30/20 protections. All signed on to this Micronesian Challenge. And the marine love-fest hasn’t stopped there. Inspired by Palau’s undertaking, another 20 countries in the Pacific, Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean have moved to enact similar protections of their own. Such is the paradox of Palau, a seemingly remote island backwater that is actually more enlightened and influential than many larger, better-funded nations.
A word of advice for landlubbers: snorkeling tours depart from the dock. That may seem self-evident, but I’m a desert dweller from New Mexico, and it never even crosses my mind as I wait expectantly in the hotel lobby with my mask, fins, and snorkel. When the phone rings, the concierge answers, shoots me a look laced with equal parts amusement and pity, and points me to the pier. By the time I reach the jetty, Eric Verheij, my guide for the day, has his twin-engine boat roped to the dock, engines idling.
A doughy, good-natured Belgian, Verheij is acting director in Palau for the Nature Conservancy. The advocacy group has helped shape the islands’ progressive conservation policy, and Verheij wants me to see what he considers their greatest success to date.
Surfacing from the bright blue Pacific west of Koror like a flotilla of emerald sea creatures, the Rock Islands are Palau’s most conspicuous allure, an uninhabited scattering of some 250 white limestone islets and plugs swathed in dense, lush foliage. The archipelago epitomizes tropical escape: aerial shots of the islands have been used to sell spas and airlines; the hit reality show Survivor filmed three seasons here; and one iconic spot, known locally as Three Coconut Island, has been renamed—lamentably—Yahoo Island for its appearance in a TV commercial for the Internet giant. Some of Palau’s most famous dive sites are here, including Blue Corner, a 180-meter coral wall where serene Napoleon wrasse, leopard sharks, and schools of smaller fish watch panicked divers hurtle by in blinding currents. Verheij, a marine biologist who worked in East Africa and Southeast Asia before moving to Palau four years ago, explains that the Rock Islands are entirely protected and that the management plan is running smoothly. “Compared with other places, like Indonesia or the Philippines, these waters are pristine,” he tells me.
The Rock Islands also host numerous inland saltwater lagoons, which, isolated from the ocean, have flourished with specially adapted creatures. We’re headed to one such lake brimming with jellyfish that, in the absence of natural predators, have lost the ability to sting. Tourists now flock to the place to strap on fins and float around with millions of the harmless little blobs.
We skim over waters as bright and sharp as liquid diamonds, the boat spraying a rooster-tail of sea behind us, and ease up to a dock in a secluded cove. Two sleepy Palauans shake off their nap to inspect our Rock Islands permits with surprising vigilance. “Take care,” one yells gravely after us as we begin clambering up the ridge of limestone blades and slick roots that protects the lake. “This lake is Palau’s future.”
After the sweaty trudge, we reach the edge of a broad, mangrove-cloaked lagoon and quietly slip in. The water is the gloomy green of a jungle night but strangely clear. We kick languidly, and soon the first fleshy pink orb floats by like a puff of cloud; then another, and another. Before long, rosy, fist-size discs that throb like human hearts engulf me. Momentarily gripped, I look over to Eric for reassurance, but the pulsating army seems to have carried him off.
In the underwater still, there’s no current, no sound but the thrum of my pulse, and nothing but jellyfish. This is what it must feel like to float through space, I think—like a game of Asteroids, except there’s no dodging the jellies, which bump up against my legs and abdomen, neck and lips. Each faint touch makes me quiver.
Perhaps Palau is fighting to preserve its natural resources because its cultural ones have so receded. Populated by seafarers from Southeast Asia some 4,500 years ago, the archipelago saw the rise of a complex matriarchal, clan-based society with deep connections to the sea and a profound oral storytelling tradition. Local legend holds that the county was created when Uab, a child from the southern island of Angaur, grew to be a giant who depleted the land of food and resources with his insatiable appetite. Unable to sustain the giant, the villagers set out to rid themselves of him by lighting his feet on fire while he slept. When Uab woke, he leapt up and tumbled into the sea, creating the Palauan islands where his body rested. Such myths, along with many other traditions, began to erode after the first European ships dropped anchor here in the 18th century.
Over the last 200 years, Spain, Germany, Japan, and the United States have ruled the islands, leaving behind vestiges of each foreign presence and a working infrastructure, but also a people with little sense of their own identity. After three decades of Japanese occupation came to an end following World War II, Palau became a U.S.-administered trust territory. It declared independence in 1994, but English remains an official language and the U.S. dollar the official currency. On the potholed main drag of Koror town—the country’s former capital and home to more than half its population—grocery stores in dispirited concrete buildings like the WCTC Shopping Center stock Nestlé cookies and citrus imported from California, while cars stop for gas at Shell and Chevron stations. When I ask where to sample local cuisine, my taxi driver looks perplexed. “You go to Fuji for sushi?” he asks hopefully. “Or Taj? It’s the best Indian food.” Never mind that it’s the country’s only Indian restaurant; I nod and hold my tongue.
A few years ago, the Palauan government announced a plan to move the capital north to Babeldaob, the largest island in the group. Although a need for space was cited as the reason, it was almost as if those in power realized just how prosaic Koror had become. “I think they wanted to leave Koror to the hotels and tourists and make a bigger impact,” says Malahi Mista Fraser, a garrulous 50-year-old Palauan guide and mother of four who, I’m told, leads some of the country’s best cultural tours. She agrees to take me to Babeldaob.
If you’re impatient, avoid a land tour in Palau at all costs. Malahi, who shows up dressed in board shorts, a Sam’s Tours T-shirt, and flip-flops, drives like most Palauans, dawdling well below the posted 25 mph (40 kph) speed limit. Babeldaob is connected to Koror by bridge, and as we creep northward, the scenery unfolds in a wild quilt of teak trees, palms, and mangroves that opens sporadically to reveal patches of taro, an island staple. The only respite from the jungle is the empty ribbon of recently laid asphalt that meanders through the hilly countryside. It’s as if the government has built a glorious road to the new capital but neglected to tell anyone about it. Malahi shrugs. “There are 10 villages on the coast. But there’s nothing in the capital yet, so no one wants to move here.”
We pull over beside a small shack and traipse half an hour through heavy forest to reach Ngardmau Waterfall, a 37-meter-tall torrent that spills over a giant, elliptical cleft in the jungle wall. Malahi says that the waterfall was once a magical, one-eyed eel that emerged from the forest, laid down here, and fell asleep. She doesn’t hedge the statement as a folktale or legend, but tells it as simple fact. After cooling our feet in the water, we continue northward to the Ngarchelong monoliths, a collection of phone booth–size basalt pillars, some carved with faces, scattered about a meadow. Archeologists believe the ancient stones originally served as supports for an enormous structure, but Malahi has other ideas. Speaking with certainty, she explains that the monoliths are the remains of a race of demigods who were turned to stone by one of their own following a squabble.
I ask Malahi if she believes that these things actually happened. “There’s a lot of magic on this island, but it’s dying out,” she tells me. “Now, with Christianity, the old generation that knows the magic is taking it to the grave with them. Otherwise, they won’t go to heaven.” I realize that while the material culture of Palau has changed, its traditions still bubble under the surface. People dress in jeans and Nikes, but keep their loincloths and lava-lava wrap skirts tucked away in the closet. They carry mobile phones and check their e-mail, yet they believe in the old magic. But for how much longer, I wonder.