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


The Beating of the Heart of Palau

The islands of Palau are actually ancient coral reefs that have been uplifted. They are porous, full of holes and passages, where water surges and flows, driven by the sun's currents and the moon's tides. Underwater passages crisscross the rock islands and may lead to underwater collapsed caverns. Through such passages, or siphons, water pumps as in a complicated circulatory system, where sea water fills caverns and spills into inland lakes, driven by pulsed celestial rhythms like a galactic heartbeat. These siphons can also lead to the mangrove roots near Jellyfish Lake, an inner island marine lake surrounded by trees. Waters here are dyed tan from leaching through the leaves. This archipelago has many such saltwater lakes created by the seepage of seawater through passages and siphons. Jellyfish Lake is unique among the rare, only one life form dominates and it is otherworldly. Here a small species of jellyfish has drifted in during its larval stage and flourished. The jellyfish move from the shore toward the lake's center. These small creatures form a constellation of life where invisible forces push and pull in a dance of moon, sun, tide and jellyfish. It is a unique celestial arrangement.

JellyfishFeatures of these particular jellyfish include its eyeless bell, dangling tentacles, but most importantly, the green-brown coloration in its tissue. This is because it has small plants, similar to the zooxanthellae found in the coral tissue, growing inside. These jellyfish are also subjects of the sun, following a daily cycle which brings them to the surface to bask in sunshine while their plant parts thrive, then descending at night into noxious depths where anaerobic conditions offer up a nearly toxic brew of nutrients. Here in Jellyfish Lake, these strange animals, 90 percent water themselves, are trapped by the unique geology of Palau.

Mangroves and Mudskippers

Mangroves and MudskippersThe roots of the mangrove trees extend like fingers, actually holding on to the land in such a way that it is not swept to sea. Where mangroves exist, the land holds. Where they do not, erosion eats away at the island. On the sandy beach next to the mangrove, which is partially created thanks to the mangrove's holding power, a drama of Lilliputian dimension unfolds. Tiny fiddler crabs with enormous claws pop out of tiny holes and wave, or fiddle, their claws to attract a mate and to scare off competitors. They pop up and down, scurry, eat, spit out perfectly round pellets, and close their sand trap doors behind them. One such tiny armored tank scratches its way back toward the mangrove roots. Perched on a root, a mudskipper looks around with frog-like, periscopic eyes. It evokes scenes imagined from a dimmer age, when evolution, in halting moves, stepped from the sea onto shore. Looking like a time traveler, an evolutionary snapshot, the mudskipper also bridges land and sea. Several skitter nearby, skimming across the water, more like birds than fish. Others walk through the mud, using their pectoral fins like primitive legs and dragging their bodies behind. One snaps at a crab and gulps it down. Two meet and raise their dorsal fins, looking like Chinese junks doing battle. Another rolls in the mud to dislodge a mosquito.

The Jungle Eden

In the canopy of a thick island jungle, the sun reigns. Bathed in sunshine, a thick jungle grows. In the treetops, hanging dark and still, a fruit bat arranges its cloak of wings around itself and gazes at us with large, dark eyes. The bat reveals its two babies clinging to its stomach and then hidden again by its wings. Maligned by fiction more than fact, these bats eat only fruit.

Moving ever more intimately into the jungle canopy, there are hidden creatures tucked into small places -- spiders, beetles, preying mantis. The secretive Palauan dove sits quietly, feathered in its beautiful colors. Its gentle cooing, a sound which is explained by myth as a mourning call in response to fishermen bringing a clam back from the sea. Everywhere here the land and sea, the sun and moon, the people and the reef are interwoven. In this island Eden, there is a complex relationship between a village and its environs. Here each turn in the reef, each outcropping of a rock, or each fruiting tree is given a name. With such ownership of place comes a strong conservation ethic.

The Disappearing Islands

The rustle of branches signals increasing wind; leaves begin to slap and move. Dark clouds move across the sky and we are about to experience another effect of the sun -- the weather system that swirls powerfully across vast ocean distances. When monsoon season arrives in paradise, the effect is dramatic. At the edge of the island, waves break over the reef and the wind whips whitecaps. In the jungle, heavy rain pours, bending large leaves which release their puddles of collected water. Water drips out of the limestone stem of the rock island: a sponge, releasing its collection of water to the sea. This rainfall has percolated through leaves and humus, picking up acidity which accelerates the erosion of the island's structure. At water level, the undercutting nature of the sea's erosion is evident. It is easy to see how the combined erosive effects of sea, rain and acidity will one day topple many of these rock gardens. At sea level, sea urchins and limpets are embedded into the rock, slowly grating algae in a minute but constant process, adding to the erosion.

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