Wind Walking in Palau 1/3
– by David Prieto
Landing on a pitch-dark runway after thirty hours travelling is not the most exhilarating way to start fieldwork. Yet under the following morning’s sunshine Palau submerged all my senses in an exploding canvas of lush greens and crystal blues that is hard to fathom. Part of what makes Palau such a remarkable place of natural beauty is its remote location, and just one week here demonstrated it.
Throughout the next three months, Isabel and I will conduct an in-depth study under the permit of Koror State to assess tourism activity at German Channel. A study by Mary O’Malley in 2013 estimated that manta ray watching tourism contributed US$ 6.8 million to the economy of Palau. The majority of manta ray watching tourism in Palau occurs at one dive site called German Channel – unique due to the high concentration of plankton and cleaning stations that attracts large numbers of manta ray as well as the site’s accessibility for novice divers and snorkelers. Over the last five years the number of boats and divers at German Channel has increased dramatically and local operators have voiced that adequate site management is lacking. The objective of this study is therefore to develop a management model for German Channel that ensures the safety of tourists and sustainability of this important dive site for the future.
My first week in Palau served to get acquainted with the project whilst adapting to life on a small island. I met the wonderful staff at NECO Marine, whom are the main sponsors of this study alongside the Etpison Museum. The sole mind behind the local Manta ID Palau Project (mantaIDpalau.org) is Mandy Etpison, whom as our host and project leader introduced us to the current status of manta ray conservation in Palau and key issues at German Channel.
The first dive at German Channel with Mandy and Isabel served to get acquainted with the site. A sandy slope in the shape of an amphitheatre with three cleaning stations. The local manta did not hesitate to welcome me as they barrel rolled gracefully across the site. I could tell how excitement took over my body as I started to breath heavily through the regulator – I had forgotten how magical it is to encounter such elegant animals. The following dive I met my buddy Uncle Fester. A very charismatic manta ray that usually swims vertically whom I rooted for as he competed with Scorpio for a very pregnant Romana during a mating train we witnessed. Remarkable as it sounds, we have not seen the full potential of German Channel as unusual current patterns the past few weeks have limited the concentration of plankton that usually attract many more manta. Regardless of this, we bumped into a new manta ray whom Isabel was fortunate to name Kau Sekool – “playful” in Palauan.
Yet diving at German Channel a few times already exposed us to the serious management issues that illustrate the need of the study we are conducting. The dive site was heavily crowded with divers, from professional photographers to novice divers, translating into an underwater disorder of needs detrimental to the general quality of the experience for all. Furthermore, some boats whizzed right above us as we were diving, posing serious danger to us and the manta ray. German Channel embodies a quintessential Tragedy of the Commons, as its unique nature but lack of administration results in its overexploitation. For this purpose, Isabel and I gave an introduction to Palau’s Manta Ray Tourism Study last Friday. We had a fantastic turnout with Koror State government, representatives from National Government, local research and conservation organizations and dive guides and operators, as well as dive tourists attended this event, which took place at Koror State Assembly Hall. There was a genuine interest palpable in the audience, as attendees were keen to learn more about the project, share their opinions and offer assistance after the presentation. The increasing momentum of the study is promising, keep posted to see where it is heading.