On beaches in Phuket, Thailand, once a hotspot for vacationers, masses of tourists have been replaced by rare leatherback sea turtles. The large sea-creatures have taken advantage of the beach closures and travel restrictions to build a record number of baby nests on the now-deserted shores.

While COVID has battered the tourism industry in places across the world, including Palau, researchers have begun to notice changes in the environment. As economies suffer the impacts of lockdown, another side-effect is slowly coming to light: what the absence of these waves of visitors has meant for the natural world.

The Republic of Palau has famously taken action to lessen human impact on the environment, such as establishing a shark sanctuary in 2009, launching the Palau Pledge in 2017, and banning reef-toxic sunscreen earlier this year. However, the recent pandemic has seemed to address those environmental concerns which continue to affect the islands. Like Thailand, Palau has recently been able to witness the close relationship between the natural world and human action.  

Jellyfish Lake, which attracted hundreds of tourists every day before the closure of borders, now receives only a handful of visitors throughout the week. Although research results on how this change has affected the jellyfish numbers are not yet available, visitors have remarked on the extraordinarily large number of jellyfish, particularly baby jellyfish, which are now visible in the lake, as opposed to pre-lockdown numbers.

As ongoing studies by such organizations as PICRC, CRRF, and BMR may eventually tell us what long-lasting effects the lack of tourists might have on the golden jellyfish, the history of the lake has already shown how susceptible the habitat is to human intervention. For instance, the invasive sea anemone is suspected to have been introduced by accident to the ecosystem, most likely by one of the lake’s many visitors.

The lasting impacts of tourism can be seen in other parts of Palau as well. Around Ngermeaus Beach, some tour companies have found that shark-feeding can be an extremely lucrative tourist attraction, even with the legal fines they are forced to pay. Now, in the absence of tourists, many visitors to the picnic area have discovered that the sound of a motorboat calls in reef sharks expecting to be fed.

Others are not optimistic about the lockdown’s effect on Palau’s marine ecosystems. With so many out of work with little source of income, many residents are concerned that greater numbers of locals are turning to fishing the reefs for livelihood. Some researchers have commented that spotting reef fish has already become more difficult in waters closer to the islands.

Despite the newfound challenges which have surfaced since the lockdown, many marine experts have chosen to see this as an opportunity for individuals living in Palau to learn how to more responsibly co-exist with the ecosystems.

“The marine life is continuing to follow the natural life cycle,” said one dive-master who works at Cruise Control. “Fish are relaxing now, because they are less stressed from all the visitors. But ideally, we wouldn’t see much of a change. If we act like visitors, protecting and respecting our environment, then we’ll see that marine life behaves the same whether we’re there to witness it or not.” (By: Adam Somers)

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