Explorations: Palau

Barracuda galore

Bigeye (forefront) and Great Barracudas school off the Blue Corner dive site in Palau. Photo by Mariah Gill.

Tropical home-stay

“Summer houses,” covered outdoor patios for gatherings, are a central part of family homes. Photo by Rob Fetter.

Yale Oceans Alliance

The Yale Oceans Alliance Team at the Palau International Coral Reef Center (PICRC). From left to right, Rob Fetter, Connie Vogelmann, Maria Rojas, and Mariah Gill with Dr. Golbuu of the (PICRC) and Tulik Beck the team’s host. Photo by Mariah Gill.

Lunch from Yano’s Local Food Store

A freshly prepared meal of parrot fish, Palauan watercress, giant clam cooked in coconut milk, taro, tapioca, kim chee vegetables, okra, and roasted local rooster. Photo by Mariah Gill.

Feeding hawksbill sea turtle

A hawksbill sea turtle feeds on sponges paying no heed to the divers. Hawksbills are listed by the IUCN as a critically endangered species. Photo by Mariah Gill.

Jellyfish Lake, a tourist magnet for a reason

Home to the Golden Jelly (Mastigias papua etpisoni), a sub-species of the Spotted Jelly (Mastigias papua). These harmless jellies host symbiotic photosynthetic algae in their tentacles and follow the movement of the sun around the marine lake. Photo by Mariah Gill.

The State of Koror, Palau

Koror is home to most of the country’s 17,000 inhabitants and the majority of the country’s tourist operations. Photo by Mariah Gill.

Pink Skunk Clownfish

Pink Skunk Clownfish guard their sea anemone, one of many species of fish that decorate Palau’s coral reefs. Photo by Mariah Gill.

Show and tell sea cucumbers

Our hostess’ niece shows off a sea cucumber she found while snorkeling amongst the coral in the Rock Islands. Photo by Rob Fetter.

White house in the jungle

The nation’s capital building is located in the state of Melekeok on the sparsely populated island of Babeldaob. Photo by Rob Fetter.

A white tip reef shark cruises amongst the corals

In 2009, President Tommy Remengesau, Jr., set aside the world’s first shark sanctuary off the caost of Palau. Photo by Mariah Gill.


During the first two weeks of 2014, I made the long journey to the Republic of Palau in the western Pacific with a team of three other Yale graduate students to learn firsthand about the challenges of conservation in Small Island Developing States (SIDS). SIDS are a group of developing island countries that tend to vote as a block in the United Nations, such as Palau, Samoa, the Marshall Islands and Mauritius. Historically they have been strong advocates for action on climate change, as they stand to literally lose their island countries to sea level rise.

Last fall, Rob Fetter, Maria Rojas, Connie Vogelmann and I—also known as the Yale Ocean Alliance—worked with Stuart Beck, Palau’s Ambassador of the Oceans and Seas, supporting a stand alone Oceans and Seas Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) at the UN. We were eager to explore the potential reach of sustainable development on the ground where it would matter most: in the biological hotspots of the world, many of them governed by SIDS.

Tulik Beck, the Ambassador’s wife, graciously hosted us at her family’s home in Koror and introduced us to officials at all levels of government, including President Tommy Remengesau, Jr.  Tulik also introduced us to local NGO leaders, fishermen, and scientists. The Yale team was astounded by Tulik’s prowess at securing meetings; she would giggle and humbly claim that nearly everybody was her “cousin” or “uncle.” We were treated to local Palauan food, history and political lessons, and recreation while not in meetings and we were lucky enough to explore the Rock Islands and many of the world famous dive sites.

Over the course of the two weeks we fell into the hypnotic rhythm of tropical living, but all the while we learned how traditional power, based on a mostly matriarchal system, interplays with the official democratic power. We tried to understand the conflict between conservation, tourism and traditional practices. With a population of only 17,000, Palau—a nation that kick-started the Micronesian Challenge, championed the World’s First Shark Sanctuary, and recently announced its intention to close its waters to commercial fishing—has a limited capacity to efficiently patrol and enforce its laws.

Palau is not sitting around letting the overwhelming challenges of marine conservation slow them down.  They are exploring the use of drones for patrolling their waters, looking for ways to increase the resilience of their coral reefs, and building infrastructure and 5-star hotels to attract  high-end tourists.  These inroads to a sustainable tourism-based economy take a lot of planning, political willpower, and resources that Palau just doesn’t have at the moment.

Palau is truly the “mouse that roared,” but international support will be needed to back that roar up.

Edited by David Gonzalez.

Mariah Gill

Mariah Gill is an avid water sportswoman (surfing, scuba and free diving, swimming, water polo, boating, etc.) from Hawaii and her enthusiasm for the wet ‘n wild is mirrored in her academic work. A member of the Yale Ocean Alliance, Mariah holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California with a concentration in marine conservation. She is currently a Masters of Environmental Management student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies with a focus on water and coastal management in island systems.

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