An Island Eden Overview
As Earth is an oasis
of life in infinite space, so the islands of Palau form a living
Eden surrounded by a desert of ocean. Palau, a cluster of green
islands, is surrounded by sparkling blue ocean. Though it covers
almost three-fourths of the planet, the ocean is mostly a vast,
empty wasteland, devoid of life. But this archipelago of 343
islands radiates a diversity of marine life throughout much
of the tropical Pacific. Truly, Palau is an Eden of lush oceanic
The southern reaches
of the archipelago are where Palau's most characteristic geological
features rise in strange formations. These are the Rock Islands:
verdant, small, undercut isles that resemble green mushrooms.
So unusual are the Rock Islands that their origins enter the
realm of magic and myth. Scattered across the sea, these uprisings
are described in Palauan legend as the protruding remains of
a gargantuan woman who, through her insatiable and selfish appetite,
exploded, creating these unique formations. A rock island, shaped
like an hourglass, balances precariously, apparently ready to
topple. These limestone islands bear the marks of erosion and
Other Worlds of Palau
We are caught in
a powerful moment as cosmic patterns and the earth adjust --
tides rise or fall, weather systems lose or gain heat, the sun
surrenders another day to the moon's night. Life on Palau takes
its most important cues from these insistent pulls of interstellar
power. Underwater, millions of tiny creatures swim. Small drifters
in a barely known ecosystem compose the brew of oceanic life,
plankton. Plankton masses reveal rainbowed ctenophores, like
spaceships signaling with colors, tiny fish, wiggling worm-like
swimmers. A baby octopus pulses, trying to move in the current,
a fragile, transparent piece of life which will develop into
the most intelligent of all the spineless creatures in the sea.
Fading light, deeper
in the water, reveals shapes and forms of strange configuration
in an unusual landscape. Suddenly, the coral reef is illuminated;
this is the Palauan oasis in an oceanic desert, an explosion
of life in an otherwise empty world where open water prevails
and only a transient glistening of whale or fish pass through.
Soft corals in reds and oranges sway next to enormous pink sea
fans. Yellow sponges rise like a cluster of tiny skyscrapers.
Green and blue parrotfish swim in the reef, painted like circus
Deep in the ocean
fiery red cracks illuminate an undersea volcanic eruption. Pillow
lava billows and flows in exploding advances, graphically demonstrating
the violent volcanic process that has created this Pacific mountain
range, the tops of which are the verdant islands of Palau. This
is how land is born in the depths of the sea.
Among the branches
of staghorn coral, with branches reaching upwards toward the
sunlight, plankton swirl and squirm in the quickly moving current.
The coral planula, the size of a hyphen, turns and settles on
a surface as did primordial coral on newly risen volcanic surfaces.
The coral polyp precipitates calcium carbonate from sea water
and builds a castle wall around itself. In time it will bud,
cloning itself into identical reef builders, all of which then
build their own structures.
The secret to the
reef building coral's success is that living inside its tissues
are tiny, single-celled plants called zooxanthellae, which provide
food for the coral. By day, the plants bathe in sunlight, providing
food for the coral animal. By night, the animal polyp expands
from its case and tiny tentacles prey on food drifting by in
the current. This partnership is perhaps the first and most
ancient ecosystem. This small patch of coral polyps begins the
miracle of life on the coral reef, where a tiny animal creates
the largest structures on earth, the only unnatural features
visible from space.
only does the reef provide housing for the mobile creatures
of the sea, it is also the basis of a vast food web. The coral
structure itself is a meal, an underwater gingerbread house,
the edible apartment building. The parrotfish is one animal
that grazes upon the coral reef. In order to eat the coral's
plants, it has developed a strong beak to break the coral's
case. To get the plants, it must devour the masonry. As they
feed on the reef they excrete a trail of sand, having digested
the embedded plants. A single parrotfish may produce a ton of
coral sand a year. The reef is in a constant cycle of creation
and destruction, achieving an evolutionary balance.
in the reef must be clever to survive. Brightly festooned lionfish
stalk small wrasse and gulp them down. Garden eels rise out
of the sandy bottom like bean stalks then bob and weave to catch
tiny morsels in the current. Goatfish feed in the sand and butterfly
fish graze on algae. Large fish snap up smaller fish. Sharks
patrol the outer edges of schools of silversides. Even young
barracuda bunch up in protective schools. This is the banquet
of the underwater world.
a small hole in the reef a tiny octopus emerges. Grown from
its larval stage, the juvenile octopus is small and vulnerable
and can only forage for seconds at a time. Furtively, it jets
back into hiding. Nearby on the reef, an adult octopus moves
like liquid mercury, changing colors in a flashing display of
camouflage. It stops, surveys, and then leaps, in octopus fashion,
on a coral head, enveloping it under the extended web of its
eight arms and feeling underneath for prey. Still vulnerable,
even as an adult, the octopus quickly returns to its den.