Reader's Digest World Presents The Living Edens Palau-Paradise of the Pacific
Under the Sea

Islands of Palau
Palau, 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 abundance.

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 the elements.

The 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 performers.

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.

Coral ReefThe Miraculous Reef

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.

School of FishNot 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.

Creatures living 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.

Staghorn CoralFrom 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.




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