Wind Walking in Palau 2/3
– by David Prieto
Alii! With the departure of Isabel a month ago I now remain the sole project manager in Palau – further immersing me in the island’s unique cultural and underwater heritage. I have had the opportunity to dive various wrecks, enthralling dichotomies of human and natural forces that embody Palau’s gruesome past. Furthermore, I was fortunate to be in Palau during the visit of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan to Peleliu as part of their pilgrimage commemorating the 70th anniversary of World War II. Palauan and English might be the dominant languages in the country, yet the island’s Japanese heritage remains palpable. Quoting Enric Sala: “It is a fitting tribute to the ocean’s ability to heal and regenerate itself when given the chance, that the Japanese are now back in Palau; but this time, they come as tourists, to dive and observe marine life.
A large proportion of the diving market in Palau is comprised of Japanese operators. Since Isabel’s departure my time has been dedicated to gathering support for our study from these stakeholders. New stakeholders are also playing bigger roles in Palau. The passing of Chinese New Years recently displayed the pressure this small island state is subject to by increasing arrivals of Chinese tourists. Albeit the surge of new capital is good for the economy, it also places substantial pressure on the country’s marine environment and resources. According to the Palau Visitors Authority (2014) 74% of tourist arriving in Palau snorkelled surpassing the 51% that came for diving. Albeit known as a world-class diving destination the tourism market in Palau is changing, and that is reflective on dive sites like German Channel where we now see snorkelers as well as divers.
The pressure human activity exerts on German Channel is reflected on the resident manta rays. Diving with a liveaboard I bumped into Kedei, a manta with a hook line on its left fin I’ve seen numerous times before. Yet this encounter was different, she was by her self and kept circling our group, closer and closer. It felt like she was asking for help. By the fourth time she circled us her wing was close enough for me to attempt to take out the hook. Unfortunately, the drastic move of my arm scared her off before I could remove it. Very frustrated I surfaced shortly after as I had passed the 60 minute mark during my dive. I now know I must be even more subtle in order to help a manta.
During my time in Palau I spent one night per week on various liveaboards introducing the project, raising awareness on manta ray conservation as well as diving German Channel at hours I cannot with day operators. This opportunity allows us to include a key sector of the dive market in our study and is thanks in part to the keen interest expressed by various liveaboards after Isabel’s presentation at Koror State Assembly Hall. Teaching manta ray identification is a highlight of the presentation, as many divers express a keen interest in naming a possibly new manta they have photographed that is not in the local manta ID database. Fortunately for me, I dived with my first baby manta at German Channel a few weeks ago, and her smooth white belly lacking ventral spots prompted me to name her Porcelana – porcelain in Spanish.