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


Keepers of Edens and Clams

Giant ClamThe source of all diversity of life in the sea is from the mythic explosion of a giant clam. Fishing is an important way of Palauan life. Some people keep clam farms. What appears to be a Zen garden of huge rocks, on closer inspection, is something else altogether; these rocks are adorned with a rippling surface of vibrant color -- the mantles of the giant tridacna clam. Children swim in the middle of a clam farm which is tended by Palauan "keepers of Eden." One small girl dives down to a clam and touches its mantle. The clam jerks, pulls in its mantle, jerks again and then slowly closes, leaving a six-inch gap--far too wide to ever entrap a foot or hand, dispelling its reputation as the man-eating clam. Within the clam's exquisitely colored mantle, tiny patches of green algae serve as internal gardens and contribute to the clam's enormous growth, much as happens in the coral and jellyfish. A sudden shudder, and the clam spouts a plume from its siphon, spawning future generations.

Alien City

OctopusAt the reef, an octopus forages, spreading its eight arms to form a living umbrella as it covers a coral head. This master of change is the first of many reef residents that is encountered as an alien city is entered. This city is complete with architecture, schedules and characters. The octopus glides along the reef, changing colors and textures in true magician form. The coral garden is the ancient partnership of coral and plant joined together to build this underwater metropolis. The coral city is alive and its characters and residents emerge. Doctors of the reef are at work -- tiny cleaning fish roam over the bodies of groupers at a "cleaning station," removing and eating parasites and bits of skin, keeping their "patients" healthier and receiving immunity from predation in the process. Garbage collectors and sanitary engineers labor away: sea cucumbers forage on the sea floor, devouring sand and purifying it in the process; sponges filter material from the water, cleaning it. There are even fashion plates on the reef -- lionfish, plumed and colorful, posture and then lunge to devour small fish. Colorful sea snails without shells, in a variety of patterns, create a montage of unexpected variety. Shoppers are busy --decorator crabs snip pieces of sponge, algae and shells and carefully apply them to their backs in a stylish act of camouflage, having "shopped" for their protection.

Tricksters and cheats also inhabit the reef -- fish with false eye spots to confuse predators; fish with apparently no faces, being masked in dark color to confuse; a cleaner mimic, looking like a cleaner fish, hangs out on the periphery of a cleaning station, approaches a fish expecting to be serviced, and then takes a bite instead. In some places on the reef, mobsters reign as schools of fish overpower a damselfish nest and devour its eggs. Sharks patrol the edges of the reef and then attack. Bodyguards hold their positions below as aggressive but small clownfish nestle into the tentacles of an anemone and not only receive its protection but also protect it from invaders.

Gobie fish and blind shrimp share a single burrow in the role of the odd couple of the reef, each helping the other. And they're are the invisibles of the city, those who find advantage in cloaking themselves with deceptive camouflage--stonefish, flatfish, crocodile fish, and another octopus. Treasure hunters comb the sandy bottom in the form of goatfish that extend their chin "whiskers" and probe in the sand for tidbits. The coral reef itself is not immune: an invading crown-of-thorns starfish, adorned with many large, pointed spikes, moves across a coral head, digesting live coral polyps and leaving a trail of white coral skeleton in its wake.

Celebration of Life

The cosmic dance changes step as the sun begins to set. The sky glows with mauves, pinks, and reds. As with many natural phenomenon there is a Palauan myth of the setting sun: before descending below the horizon, the sun passes by an orange tree, collects a few oranges and then throws them into the sea before entering, in order to scare away the sharks.

Coral egg packetsAs darkness settles on the reef, so does a stillness. Fish seek niches in the reef to rest. In the barely illuminated darkness, parrotfish slumber, eyes open in their "sleeping bag," a mucus coating it has secreted to disguise their scent. The goatfish has changed colors, put on its "pajamas" for nighttime on the reef. From underneath a reef ledge, a basketstar climbs to the top and unfurls its tangled arms.

Even at night, a full moon illuminates the reef. The most enchanting magic happens at night. In each coral castle, there is a round balloon: the coral egg packets. As the balloons are released in rapid succession, egg packets rise, and the water is filled with pink spheres. This is the brief moment of coral spawning and drifting to new regions, when the sea is filled with the possibility of distant coral reefs, of more island Edens.

SunriseThe sunrises above the reef and a new day begins as the sun's rays again penetrate clear water. At the surface, the sea explodes in a feeding frenzy with fish jumping, birds diving, sharks circling below. Manta rays soar and plunge and sharks hunt effortlessly. Fishermen prepare nets from their boats. This Eden -- Palau - is where the smallest creatures have the greatest effect; where the most distant forces, the sun and moon, have the closest influence; and where life is bound with the vitality of the planet in abundance and beauty.

 

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