Wind Walking in Palau 3/3
– by David Prieto
Fieldwork is in full swing. The resident population of manta rays in German Channel is estimated between 10 to 30, yet the manta ID Palau database contains approximately 300 individuals. So where are all the other mantas? A very possible answer is north of Koror; specifically around Babeldaob which is the biggest island of Palau. All the main dive sites of Palau are located south of Koror so diving around Babeldaob is not common amongst tourist. Yet the north guards a secret that Mandy wished to show me…
During one of our exploratory expedition up north we encountered a feeding aggregation of approximately 25 manta rays! My first encounter with such a large aggregation was a truly mesmerizing experience. The sheer number of mantas and their proximity to the surface only required us to snorkel rather than dive. We initially thought the aggregation was comprised of around 10 individuals but after two hours snorkelling and identifying their bellies we realized that it was rather three groups of 10 mantas comprising the entire aggregation. Breaching and rolling, the mantas were so preoccupied feeding on plankton that more than once I had to dodge a fin that was on its way to slapping me. Even more remarkable was the presence of 4 black morph manta rays that resembled a Batmobile. These enigmatic individuals were entirely integrated in the group and one was even being chased by a male chevron morph manta. If you ask me, manta feeding aggregations are a natural wonder of the world. Considering that most of the revenue generated from manta tourism in Palau is by a tenth of the total population in German Channel, our study also aims to highlight the unknown potential of Palau’s manta rays and serve as a sustainable management benchmark for the northern states of Palau in the future.
Manta rays have never been hunted in Palau, culturally Palauans continue to be people of the sea were fishing remains a common hobby. A key challenge is therefore to raise awareness on the market potential of conservation whilst also being culturally sensitive. In light of this, my last weeks in Palau were very hectic as I prioritized meeting key stakeholders in the management issue at German Channel we are attempting to address. I first met with Koror State Rangers whom would be the main enforcing body of our study’s recommendations. The rangers were kind to invite me on the Ngemelis fleet, were we discussed their role and concerns as they showed me a typical day of surveillance they conduct.
In order to effectively convey the need of sustainable management at German Channel a video targeting government officials and legislators was developed. The video (see below) explains the unique character of German Channel as well as displays footage of various management faults witnessed during our period of fieldwork. As the objective of this study is to influence maritime legislation, this video was used to raise awareness and argue in favour of sustainable management during meetings that took place with government officials and legislators.
Although the scale of this project is small, its implications are a lot larger. President Tommy Remengesau intention to protect 80 percent of Palau’s waters as a National Marine Sanctuary, passes first by sustainably managing the key maritime assets of the country such as German Channel. Palau cannot expect to effectively enforce a National Marine Sanctuary law if they cannot first sustainably manage their small scale maritime assets. Furthermore, the large population of manta rays in Palau embodies a market potential ten times of what it currently is. If legislation is passed based on the results of this study, Palau would become a leader in manta ray conservation and general maritime sustainability.
As fieldwork in Palau comes to an end, various things come to my mind. The passing of Typhoon Maysak during this expedition promoted locals to talk about typhoon Bopha, a typhoon in 2012 that damaged the east reef of Palau and with it a third of the total dive spots popularly known. The vulnerability of island states to climate change events like Bopha make it concomitant to manage maritime assets sustainably in order to build resiliency. Our results indicate a low sightings of manta at German Channel this season. This might be to tourism pressure, current EL Niño event, or purely natural cycle. We do not know yet. What I do know is that it has been a extraordinary and beautiful journey.