of Edens and Clams
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.