By M. E. Schuman
Micronesia represents four archipelagos with over 2,100 islands that has attracted scuba divers from all over world. Together the group of islands cover 1,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean: the Caroline Islands (Federated States of Micronesia and Palau), the Marshall Islands, the Mariana Islands (Northern Mariana and Guam), and the Gilbert Islands (Republic of Kiribati).
The most spectacular for divers is Truk, Palau, and Yap providing endless exploration from the vestiges of WWII, healthy reefs, manta rays, and sharks. After researching flights, the destination of this winter trip morphed into an adventure that sparked the interest of my partner and a co-worker who just got her PADI scuba certification. There was a flight from Anchorage to Guam with a layover in Yap before the final destination, Palau.
My upcoming adventure spread throughout the office: “Yap, where the heck is that?” With a shake of a head, eyes rolled upwards followed by adjectives galore, my adventures were notorious. But I always made it back to work on schedule.
Yap is infamous for the large circular Rai stones that have been used as currency and a significant part of the Yapese culture for hundreds of years. Island life on Yap sent us back in time as we settled into our thatched hut amidst a jungle of greenery. Women had no worries as they chatted along the dirt and rutted road in their grass skirts, adorned with woven necklaces covering their bare breasts.
Considering there was only one dive shop open as it was the low season for diving in Yap, we had lowered our expectations for our first dive in Mi’il Channel, a well-known manta ray cleaning station. One of the highlights for visiting Yap.
As I rolled off backwards into the water, I found myself surrounded by these magical beings with brilliant white wings as they glided through the water. I almost forgot to breathe as I joined my dive partners. We watched these ancient creatures with the colorful striped wrasse clinging to their bodies.
Hundreds of mantas, as well as sharks, visit places on the reef where small striped fish and shrimp pick off bacteria, parasites and dead skin from the scales, gills and even the mouths of the mantas. The mysteries of nature never cease to astound me. How did this symbiotic relationship begin? I wondered.
With only five of us on the small dive boat it was a logistically easy day of diving with clear blue water and a healthy productive reef system of fish. One of the divers was a local Peace Corps volunteer. While waiting for our second dive we took advantage of the time to learn about Yap. It was disheartening to find out one of the sister Islands was being evacuated due to sea water rise, probably one of the first refugees of climate change, as this was in 2009.
Somberly, he explained Yap was also beginning to see salt water intrusion affecting taro plantations, a primary food source for the Island. He was frustrated with the quagmire of paperwork to ship native plants to safe storage facilities to preserve them. And meanwhile, he was documenting the traditional knowledge of each plant species from the elders as there was no written record.
After a day of kayaking and exploring we left this Island of the past for Palau. As I looked down at the Island below amongst the brilliant blue water, I wondered her fate. After hundreds of years of a symbiotic relationship of the Yapese and the sea, will the climate crisis break that relationship? Swallowing the island and all that she nourished?
As we made our way through the noisy busy village of Koror, it was astonishing how Palau and Yap were complete opposites. The following is an excerpt from The Understory: A Female Environmentalist in the Land of the Midnight Sun:
“Palau is called the ‘underwater Serengeti’ because of its diversity of huge schools of reef fish, dugongs, sharks, rays, and living healthy coral. The Blue Corner in Palau is one of the best dive sites in the world. You drift along a wall of coral with brilliant purple anemones and then hook yourself into the top edge of the reef wall. Suspended in the strong current, a highway of sharks, jacks, and manta rays pass you by. As we were lazily watching the world swim by, our German friend [that we dove with in Yap] had a different encounter. A large green eel had made an appearance below her, and, with a flash of gray in a turbulent swirl of sediment, she found herself in the middle of a feeding frenzy between two sharks. All we could do was watch. And then, as quickly as it started it was over. And luckily for our friend, she still had all her body parts. As an expert diver, she remained calm throughout the entire frenzy.
We explored the caverns and the blue hole, a diminutive version of the one in Belize, but no less spectacular, with its ambient light at 95 feet. Colorful gorgonian fans, tubular sponges, and butterfly fish paid no attention to sharks, tuna, and grouper. At shallower depths, turtles and the large birdlike manta fed on a very, very healthy reef. We saw no signs of bleaching or sedimentation.”
Caring for the environment has long been an important part of Palau’s culture. For centuries, traditional leaders on these Pacific Ocean islands have worked to protect local waters through enactment of a “bul”—a moratorium on catching key species or fishing on certain reefs to protect habitats that are critical to the community’s food security.
When Palau became an independent nation in 1994, its founders wrote in the constitution about the need for “conservation of a beautiful, healthful, and resourceful natural environment.”
On Oct. 28, 2015, after unanimous passage in the National Congress, President Tommy E. Remengesau Jr. signed into law the Palau National Marine Sanctuary Act, establishing one of the world’s largest protected areas of ocean.
Jellyfish Lake of Palau is a wonder of the sea. Read about these graceful creatures in The Understory: A Female Environmentalist in the Land of the Midnight Sun.