On January 1st, 2020 the Palau National Marine Sanctuary became one of the largest protected body of water on planet earth. It took years of planning from a team of visionaries, and sacrifices from the entire Palau community to bring this concept to life. The hopes and dreams of this small island nation included the expectations of a healthier ocean with a more vibrant tuna population, and improved economic conditions for sustenance & sport fishermen.
As expected, the sanctuary began paying dividends shortly after the expulsion of the foreign long line fishing fleets. The foreign vessels have since been replaced with a domestic fisheries program, which has insured the food security of an isolated nation, struggling to keep our economy afloat in the middle of a global pandemic. The Palauan sport and sustenance fishermen have reported record catches of wahoo, mahi mahi, tuna, and billfish. This has been a blessing to local families who have historically relied on the tourism and hospitality industries.
The fact that Palau’s pelagic (open ocean) fish populations are recovering has come as no surprise. The ocean has kept the promise made by the biologists and politicians who designed this expansive marine protected area. Few in this community however could’ve foreseen the many hidden benefits of a healthier happier ocean. Specifically, the whales and dolphins have been returning to Palau’s waters in numbers. Not only is there a more ample food supply for these deep diving marine mammals, but the ocean has also become a quieter place. While humans rely largely on our sense of vision for orientation, Cetaceans depend on their acute sense of hearing, known as echolocation. Thus the roaring sounds emitted from diesel engines can disturb the delicate patterns of life for these sensitive creatures. Imagine trying to sleep in a house located next to a set of busy train tracks, and you’ll easily relate to the challenges the whales face in a heavily trafficked ocean.
Whales and dolphins which stayed miles away from Palau’s shores are now swimming within sight of the reef. We’ve even recorded new species of Cetacean since the sanctuary’s inauguration. On April 10, 2021, eleven year old Kendra Miluu Leidich was whale watching with her family and friends when she discovered the exceptionally rare Fraser’s Dolphin within the Palau National Marine Sanctuary. We’re hoping that this super pod of over one thousand dolphins will remain in Palau’s protected waters. With this latest sighting, Palau has now confirmed an astonishing 24 species of marine mammal.
Not only are we finding greater numbers of Cetaceans in the PNMS, but the very behavior of the whales and dolphins has changed. The threatening nature of foreign fishing fleets taught the intelligent mammals to flee on sight. Dolphins who once fled from boats are now playfully approaching, as the trust between man and animal has been restored. This epic return to innocence was on full display on April 23, when sixteen year old Calvin Idek Leidich launched off the docks of Koror, for a dive day with his father. Halfway to the dive site, his journey was interrupted by the massive exhalation of a 50,000lb Sperm Whale. Veteran captain, Jefferson Nestor recognized the distinctive spout of the world’s largest toothed whale, and quickly turned off the motors. Carefully maneuvering the boat using only the wind and kayak paddles, Jefferson eased the 27’s boat into the epicenter of a pod (female family group) of giant sperm whales. The quiet approach elicited the natural curiosity of a beast who claims the largest brain of any species on earth. The matriarch of the group slowly approached the boat before rolling on her side to make eye contact with the stunned spectators. She even allowed the star struck naturalists to gently touch her massive flank before easing back into the midst of her sisters, cousins, and children.
If the sensitivities of the whales and dolphins continue to be respected, this may in fact represent Palau’s new normal. Imagine a world where our children can interact with these beautiful wild creatures in such a harmonious fashion. Palau has become an island sanctuary where the lives of humans and wildlife have been improved, thanks to the visionaries who created our sanctuary and those that continue to protect it. (By: Ron Liedech)