Green Matters: Good Environmental News from Palau
Every now and then an environmental story slips into the news stream that is as unexpected as it is pleasant—like a dollar bill on the sidewalk or a favorite tee-shirt rediscovered in your bottom drawer. Recently that story came in the form of a stunning announcement from the South Pacific: The island nation of Palau declared the waters within its Exclusive Economic Zone a marine mammal sanctuary. The move will offer whales, dolphins, and dugongs a safe haven roughly the size of Mongolia.
Palau’s minister of the environment delivered the news on October 23 during a meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Nagoya, Japan. It was an ironic setting, given that Palau has consisted voted alongside Japan in favor of commercial whaling. At least until now.
The announcement was well received in environmental circles, of course, but beyond the green blogosphere, word of Palau’s great deed didn’t seem to travel too far. Maybe it was because we were too caught up in pre-election fervor or too giddy about Ski Season 2010 (the day after Palau’s declaration, it started dumping in the Tetons and Colorado fired up its first lifts). Or maybe it was because Palau is just so…far.
Whatever the reason, you might be interested to know that this new marine mammal sanctuary is big—bigger, even, than the marine sanctuary that George W. Bush famously declared northwest of Hawaii back in 2006. That one measured about 140,000 square miles; this one tops out at 231,660. It’s also teeming with cetaceans. Palau is home to as many as 30 species of whales and dolphins, and one of the most isolated populations of dugongs in the world.
In fact, the more you learn about this tiny country (pop. 21,000), the wilder the numbers become: 1,500 species of fish, 700 species of coral and anemone, a 100 percent chance of seeing a shark during a dive.
“Every dive in Palau, I guarantee you can see one or two sharks—but I’ll bet you can see 10 to 20.” says Francis Toribiong, a Palau native and 62-year-old diving legend. “They come close to about three feet away from your mask.”
Toribiong founded Palau’s first dive center in 1972 and has since discovered virtually every major dive site in the country. It was he who found Blue Corner — one of the most famous dive sites in the world — and led the crew of The Living Sea, Greg MacGillivray’s 1995 IMAX hit, to some of the film’s greatest underwater moments. I’d wager that if it weren’t for Toribiong’s intrepid spirit, Palau might not have become the ecotourism hot spot that it is today.
And that’s another thing about feel-good environmental stories: They have an uncanny way of leading you to the world’s coolest adventure personalities. You just have to pay attention.
Photos courtesy PVA.