The South Pacific island nation of Palau has declared all the waters within its Exclusive Economic Zone to be a marine mammal sanctuary for the protection of whales, dolphins and dugongs.

Harry Fritz, Palau's minister of the environment, natural resources and tourism, announced the new 600,000 square kilometer (231,660 square mile) sanctuary on behalf of President Johnson Toribiong at a news conference Saturday during Oceans Day at the Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Nagoya, Japan.

"From ancient times to today, we have conserved our biodiversity through the tools of "bul" or moratoria, and protection of critical areas," said Fritz.

"Biodiversity has always been integral to the Palauan culture," he said. "Our traditional identity, values, legends and practices are intimately linked to our surroundings and to our relationships with living creatures. Conservation of biodiversity is ingrained in our daily approach to life and inherent in the meaning of our words."

A close group of islands, Palau has at least 11 species of cetaceans in its waters, including a breeding population of sperm whales and as many as 30 other species of whales and dolphins. Palau's dugongs are the most isolated and endangered population in the world, said Fritz.

"This sanctuary will promote sustainable whale-watching tourism, already a growing multi-million dollar global industry, as an economic opportunity for the people of Palau," Fritz said.

Much of Palau's economy comes from tourism and the country hosts Dolphins Pacific, the world's largest dolphin research facility and the Palau International Coral Reef Center, a modern aquarium and research facility specializing in tropical coral reefs. The region's spectacular underwater biodiversity includes over 1,500 species of fish and 700 species of coral and anemone.

"The hunting of marine mammals, largely by foreign countries, in the 19th and particularly the 20th centuries has dramatically reduced populations in the Pacific Islands Region," he said. "The International Whaling Commission has recognized that there is clear scientific evidence that in the Pacific Islands region many of the great whale species remain severely depleted in numbers, due to the impacts of past whaling."

"It is a well-established scientific principle that to protect migratory species it is necessary to protect them not only in their feeding areas and migratory routes but also in their breeding grounds," Fritz said.

Establishment of the sanctuary is intended to prohibit the deliberate hunting and harassment of any marine mammals.

But Palau has only one patrol boat at its disposal to patrol waters that cover an area just a little smaller than the U.S. state of Texas. The boat is supplied by Australia and operated by the government of Palau.

Fritz said that Palau is seeking assistance from neighboring countries in patrolling and surveillance of its EEZ for illegal taking of marine mammals.

"We urge other countries to join our efforts to protect whales, dolphins and other marine mammals - for the sake of the species, as well as the future economic, social and spiritual development of coastal peoples," he said.

Palau also needs help to deal with all the illegal fishing taking place in its EEZ. "Last August I received a report from the U.S. officials in Guam showing more than 850 vessels fishing illegally in Palau’s waters," Fritz told reporters in Nagoya. Illegal fishing with the use of dynamite has also been reported.

"Palau's support for the conservation of marine species underscores this small island nation's tremendous commitment to protecting life in the oceans that surround it. Other countries should join Palau in safeguarding species in their waters," said Dr. Susan Lieberman, director of international policy for the Pew Environment Group, which has contributed a grant to fuel the patrol boat.

The Republic of Palau lies in the Pacific Ocean, some 800 km (500 miles) east of the Philippines and 3,200 km (2,000 miles) south of Tokyo. The islands were seized by Japanese ships during World War I and governed by Japan until 1947 when the islands passed formally to the United States under United Nations auspices as part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands.

Emerging from trusteeship in 1994, Palau is one of the world's youngest and smallest sovereign states. About 70 percent of Palau’s population of approximately 21,000 residents, live on the island of Koror.

Until now, Palau has voted with Japan in favor of commercial whaling at the annual meetings of the International Whaling Commission and the establishment of its marine mammal sanctuary is viewed as a signal that Japan may no longer be able to count on Palau's vote for whaling.

Asked whether the new marine mammal sanctuary will affect Palau's relationship with Japan, Fritz said Palau is now making its position known and that it will be "understood by friends."

More than 1,500 whales are hunted and killed each year for their meat, most of them by Japan. This occurs despite a global moratorium on commercial whaling since 1986 and the establishment of the Southern Ocean as an international whale sanctuary in 1994.

Palau, in partnership with the South Pacific Whales Research Consortium, Whaleology, and the Pew Environment Group, announced last week that it is beginning to lay the groundwork for a sustainable whale-watching industry.

During a presentation Wednesday night on the importance of marine mammals in the region, the Queen of Koror Bilung Gloria Salii said Palau is in the process of completing a whale-watching feasibility study.

At the event, entitled, "The Role of Marine Reserves and Wildlife Sanctuaries in Conserving Large Pelagic Species," hosted by the Pew Environment Group, Salii said whale and dolphin-watching alone already generates approximately US$23 million each year in direct revenues worldwide.

Lieberman, who represented Pew at the presentation last week, said, "Palau, which once supported the Japanese position on commercial whaling, now supports conserving marine mammals, along with sharks and other species. By aiding economic development through ecotourism, Palau recognizes the importance of keeping these species alive and thriving."


From the LA TIMES: Dazzling Palau and its turquoise waters under the radar

Times Staff Writer

An underwater armada sailed by my dive mask, turned as if on cue and sailed by again -- a dozen bright splashes of color sparkling in the calm, clear water. These yellow-tailed fusiliers were showing off for a clumsy human intruder, I thought, and I laughed.

Clumsy, indeed. I exploded to the surface coughing. I'd forgotten you can't laugh underwater; I'm always so excited when I'm nose to nose with a school of fish that I overlook the limitations of having a snorkel clenched between my teeth.
The fusiliers and I were swimming in aquamarine water off the coast of Palau, a tiny Western Pacific nation that's considered an underwater wonder of the world. Its turquoise seas are legendary with divers, some of whom view it as a mecca. But visitors don't have to dive to appreciate Palau's treasures; even an inexperienced snorkeler can glimpse a magical array of coral, fish and other colorful marine life. Those with simpler tastes -- a beach chair and a sandy shoreline -- can find long, white beaches on emerald-green, uninhabited islands.

Despite its popularity with divers -- Jacques Cousteau was among its boosters -- Palau is relatively undiscovered. It's off the radar of most Americans, with fewer than 3,000 visiting last year. Only about 70,000 visitors arrived overall, the size of the weekend crowd at a U.S. theme park. The nation hopes to raise its visibility July 22-31, when the Pacific Islands Festival of the Arts is held here, drawing 27 nations and about 4,000 participants and guests.

For Americans, Palau offers more than tropical ambience and multihued fish. In a world of places where Yanks aren't welcome, Palau is a gentle alternative. The island republic, once a U.N. Trust Territory administered by the U.S., is an uncomplicated destination. The currency is the U.S. dollar, visas are not required, and most residents speak English. Best of all, they seem to genuinely like American visitors.

"The friendliness of the people, the slow island style, the great diving, I love it all," said Tina Summerlin of Charlotte, N.C., whose June trip to Palau was her second visit. "I'd eventually retire here if I thought I could talk my husband into it."

A wealth of islands

The Palau archipelago, considered part of Micronesia, has more than 300 forested islands and atolls spread out over 325 miles of the Pacific Ocean and the Philippine Sea. Most visitors stay in Koror, the capital, and spend their time diving, snorkeling and kayaking in the blue waters surrounding Palau's Rock Islands, lush green wedges of land that jut out of the sea to form a maze of channels teeming with marine life. Protected by a long barrier reef, the islands are surrounded by water so calm and clear that a boat in the distance seems to float on the sky.

When I visited in mid-June -- my 18-hour flight here was on Continental Micronesia via Hawaii and Guam -- I wasted little time. Within a few hours, I was in a boat skimming through the water toward the Rock Islands with five other snorkelers.

Our first stop was an area called Clam City, where the mollusks grow as large as 4 feet at their widest point and as heavy as 500 pounds. The giant clams, the world's largest, were resting on a sandy bottom in tranquil, 10-foot-deep water. Everyone joked about getting trapped inside one, but our guide, Jake Oiterong, quickly set us straight. "Impossible," he said, laughing.

The giant clams are among many species that can be seen only in Palau. The islands lie astride two of the world's deepest ocean channels, the Palau Trench and the Philippine Deep. Their fathomless depths have helped create an unmatched marine environment that's home to 1,400 species of fish and hundreds of species of coral. The diversity makes snorkeling or diving enticing; water temperatures of 80 to 86 degrees make it comfortable.

We saw snappers and wrasses, cuttlefish and gobies, sea stars and soft corals as our boat motored through the huge lagoon that encompasses the Rock Islands, stopping at underwater attractions. At one point, we peered down at a submerged Japanese Zero aircraft that crashed in 1944 during a World War II battle. The pilot swam to shore uninjured, Jake said.

Palau was a major battle site during the war, and its lagoon is a silent harbor for dozens of ships that sank during fierce fighting. Planes, armaments and tanks can be seen on the land and in the water. Peleliu Island, 23 miles southwest of Koror, was the scene of one of the bloodiest battles, with thousands of casualties.

Now an independent nation of about 20,000 residents, Palau weathered several colonial periods: Spain, Germany, Japan and the U.S. all left their mark in one way or another. Palau's government buildings, currently in Koror, were built by the Japanese before World War II. They're timeworn, like most of the buildings and roads in the tiny capital. There are 23 miles of paved roads and two stoplights, although they don't work. (They caused more congestion than they prevented, residents say.)

There are restaurants and bars, hotels and small shops, but many Palauans seem to agree with resident Miriam Chin: "The beauty of our nation is in our waters, not in our town."

Land also delights

There also is beauty in the land, where rain forests, jungles and mangrove forests form a nearly impenetrable labyrinth of greenery.

The island of Babeldaob, north of Koror, is one of the largest landmasses in the region, second only to Guam. A combination of thick rain forests, rolling hills, sandy white beaches and picturesque villages, Babeldaob bursts with natural wonders. But, like most of Palau, it is isolated. A new road promises to make visits there simpler, but until it is finished -- and no one wants to guess when that will be -- only jolting four-wheel-drive tours are possible.

Palauan friends told me the road was much better than it used to be. Still, we jerked and bounced over the unpaved, single-lane track for eight hours to make a 50-mile round-trip journey, sliding off into a muddy ditch at one point. Luckily, a dump-truck driver needed to get by our Toyota 4Runner. His only recourse was to yank us out.

But our rollicking trip -- from Koror to the tip of Babeldaob -- was well worth the effort.

We saw mysterious carved stone faces, reminiscent of Easter Island's stone carvings, and giant monoliths, the largest nearly 10 feet tall. A group of six carved stones and 31 monoliths sat on a wind-swept plateau overlooking the Philippine Sea, strange, moss-covered faces staring mutely into space.

In the last decade, when the new road began cutting into Babeldaob, archeologists found evidence of ancient burials and advanced construction of large, terraced, man-made mounds. Primitive inhabitants created terraces, dating to 200 BC, on more than 20% of the island, said Rita Olsudong, an archeologist with the Palau Historic Preservation Office. Our trip took us by some of the mounds, where we found clay pottery shards underfoot.

"The technology is impressive," Olsudong said. "Using only ancient tools, these communities were able to construct terraces and stone features still standing today."

Although much of the distant history of the country is lost in time, there is a strong oral tradition, with legends of tortoises, spiders and mermaids passed from generation to generation. Carved wooden storyboards, a popular souvenir, relate the tales. These are available at the few gift shops here, but one of the largest stashes can be found at the Koror jail, where prisoners whittle and carve them for cash.

I wandered in with some friends one steamy afternoon. The overcrowded jail smelled, well, like a jail on a hot day. But there were dozens of storyboards to choose from, some as tall as 4 feet. My favorite depicted a village full of people and an ocean full of fish, tortoises and leaping marlins. It was a foot tall, 2 feet long and carved from mahogany. It was marked $130, but I was told the prisoners often allowed the items to be sold for less. I glanced at the name carved on the back of the plaque.

"Would Oscar take less?" I asked.

The attendant went through a side door and reappeared a few minutes later.

"He said $100."

I bought the piece along with a book of Palauan legends.

"Why's Oscar in jail?" I asked.

"Drug trafficking."

Crime is uncommon in Palau, where strong gun laws and community pressure limit lawbreaking. But the per-capita income is about $10,000 a year, and some people in remote areas cultivate marijuana to supplement their income, I was told.

We left the jail, and I moved on to other attractions. Rain had started -- the official rainy season is late June to November -- and winds were churning the waters near the Rock Islands. I'd have to swim with the fish another day.

Environmental education

But there were museums to see. The nation's main facility, the Belau National Museum, will relocate to a new building before the Festival of the Arts. I toured the current facility and saw historical and cultural artifacts. Nearby was a thatched-roof bai, or traditional men's meeting house, where chiefs gather to discuss issues and make laws.

Also on my itinerary was the Etpison Museum, a nicely organized collection of Palauan artifacts and historical photos; and the Palau International Coral Reef Center, where I walked through a mock-up of the country's coral reef ecosystem. I learned about saltwater crocodiles, rabbit fish, jellyfish and a host of small, colorful reef fish, such as butterflyfish and clownfish. The center has a research wing that focuses on helping the country preserve its environment and culture.

Palau aggressively protects its resources, particularly marine resources. Twice in the last year, Palau President Tommy Remengesau Jr. has set fire to gasoline-doused piles of shark fins seized from foreign fishermen. The message: Palau's sharks are off-limits. Conservationists say sharks are "finned" on the high seas and their bodies are dumped back in the water, often while the fish is still alive. (The finless shark bleeds to death, drowns or is eaten by another.) The fins are used in shark fin soup, a popular Asian dish.

Environmental issues are debated in bars, restaurants and neighborhood gatherings as the community struggles with the fine line of promoting tourism and protecting the environment. Palau is the only place I've ever visited where I've heard the term "sustainable tourism" outside of a government office.

The result is clean water, clean shores and no major development in the Rock Islands. A particularly beautiful region, called the Seventy Islands Wildlife Preserve, has white beaches, inviting coves and a maze of turquoise waterways. But it can be viewed only from the air. Its sandy shores are the natural habitat for egg-laying sea turtles; boats are banned.

The Palauans' respect for the environment was evident throughout my snorkeling adventures. Trash was collected before it had a chance to blow overboard, and tourists were cautioned not to touch the coral or the fish.

It was an easy rule to follow until we reached Jellyfish Lake. Everyone says the lake offers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to swim with jellyfish -- without getting stung by their trailing tentacles.

The marine lake is atop a limestone island near Koror. Visitors must climb through the jungle up a hill so steep that thick ropes have been strung along the rocky pathway to help them to avoid falling. Dense vegetation keeps the sun from reaching the ground; tales of poisonous trees and saltwater crocodiles made the walk more interesting.

Once at the lake, there was sun -- and jellyfish by the thousands. Cut off from the main lagoon and predators, the mastigias jellyfish evolved without the ability to sting. They follow the sun during the day, moving with it across the lake. When we arrived, they were only about 20 feet from the shoreline.

We'd been told not to wear flippers, which could rip the fragile jellyfish apart, and to avoid harming them.

I looked at the deep, murky water, at the thousands of bobbing, throbbing, undulating jellyfish and wondered whether I was up to this undertaking. Hmm, I thought. Undertaking. Poor choice of word.

OK, I thought, I've come this far. I slid off the wooden dock and floated toward the jellyfish, trying hard not to actually get near them. No such luck. They oozed through the water toward me. Some were as large as a fist, others as small as a pinhead. They began bouncing and rolling against my body.

I didn't touch. I didn't scream. I didn't flail.

But I didn't hang around long either.

"So, what did you think?" another snorkeler asked as I popped onto the dock, gasping.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing," I answered, "just like everyone says."



As one of the seven Underwater Wonders of the World, Palau is blessed with one of nature’s most coveted indigenous spas, the Milky Way, as well as Bali-inspired Mandara Spas, located at two of the destinations most prestigious resorts.

The Milky Way…

one of nature’s most coveted indigenous spas

Sometimes, the best spa treatments are found right at the source and that’s where Palau rises to the occasion. One of the most popular attractions for those visiting this archipelago of more than 586 islands is at the foundation of a special cove locals call the “Milky Way.” The creamy water gives off a cloudy mystique, its bottom covered not by the sand one might expect, but instead white limestone mud, which gives the water a milky sheen. It is rumored that the mysterious chalky mud makes an excellent rejuvenating facial, so tour guides make it a must-see pit stop for passengers visiting the Rock Islands.

Once safely ensconced in the secluded cove, guides abruptly dive off before the boat is even anchored, diving down to the floor of the inlet to return with a huge handful of the white muck. Depending on the personality of the group, guides will either start playfully slathering the pungent mud upon the passengers, which often turns into a “mud fight,” or they will pull up buckets of the healing balm, which guests can apply themselves. Once covered in the creamy substance, passengers are instructed to relax and bask in the sun, while the clay dries and the minerals work their magic. Once sufficiently dry, literally cracking at the seams, it’s time to jump into the milky water, rinse off and relish in the benefits of this natural body scrub that is said to fetch hundreds of dollars in some of the world’s best spas.

Mandara Spas

(Bali-inspired tradition, located at the Palau Pacific Resort and Palau Royal Resort)

In Bali, the healing arts are passed down from generation to generation, from mother to daughter; from father to son. Mandara Spa was founded upon this peaceful Balinese ritual and the critically-acclaimed custom embarked upon its spa journey with a simple desire to pass this healing knowledge on to all those seeking solace and relaxation. Today, there are over 70 Mandara Spas in all corners of the world, each maintaining its reverence for Balinese traditions. Because Micronesia does not itself have a tradition in the healing arts, they have adopted this tradition as it aligns well with Palau’s customs.

Mandara Spa – Palau Pacific Resort

The 160-room Palau Pacific Resort is nestled among 64 acres of lush tropical gardens with exotic flowers on the western shore of Arakebasang hamlet in Koror. Combining the true spirit and culture of the islands with a tranquil ambiance and beauty, the resort is a premiere destination for scuba divers and outdoor enthusiasts.

Featuring a private 1000-foot blanket of white sand beach, the property recently constructed the Elilai Spa by Mandara, which is a perfect retreat, located at the secluded end of the property, taking advantage of its peaceful, soothing surroundings. The Spa Villas are built on an elevated area overlooking the private ocean bay, comprising of two double Deluxe Spa Villas and three single Spa Villas. The double Villas feature in-room private bath, steam shower and relaxation deck. The Tranquility Centre is located next to the beach offering an amazing ocean view, housing the Spa Reception, retail Boutique, manicure and pedicure area.

There are several treatments, but the signature options at Mandara Spa – Palau Pacific Resort are as follows:

- Milky Way Escape: This luxurious package begins with a refreshing peppermint foot ritual followed by an aromatic coco vanilla body scrub to soften the skin and prepare for the detoxifying white body mud, which will set while the guest is wrapped in a comforting spa cocoon. Next, the guest will luxuriate in a Milky Way bath, soak and finish with a muscle melting warm stone massage.

- Mandara Massage: The signature treatment is performed by two therapists working together with a unique blend of five different massage styles – Shiatsu, Thai, Hawaiian Lomi Lomi, Swedish and Balinese.

- Elemis Skin Specific Facial: The facial combines the power of absolutes with true premium grade essential oils, to treat the skin at the deepest level, gently but surely. Specialized Eastern massage movements help to stimulate and oxygenate skin, whilst bringing the body and mind into balance.

- SPA OFFER: Valid through 12/31/10: Go to: http://www.mandaraspa.com/spa/Koror-Palau-Pacific-Resort.aspx for choice of complimentary Refresher Facial or Back Massage, when another treatment is purchased AND 10% off selected retail item, when making a booking

Mandara Spa – Palau Royal Resort

Palau Royal Resort is located amidst the captivating beauty of one of the world’s most magnificent seascapes and the famous Rock Islands. Operated by Nikko Hotels International, the six-storey resort features 157 guestrooms and suites overlooking the panoramic view of Palau’s pristine waters and extensive recreational facilities.

Mandara Spa is located at a secluded part of the resort, offering three double and two single Deluxe Spa Suites, with private outdoor bath, steam shower and relaxation area overlooking the landmark Rock Islands. The main building houses the reception, retail boutique, relaxation lounge and manicure/pedicure area.

There are several treatments, but the signature options at Mandara Spa – Palau Pacific Resort are as follows:

- Ultimate Indulgence: An exotic, luxurious and unforgettable experience of indulgence, featuring Aromatherapy Floral Footbath; Lavender Body Wash; and choice of Traditional Body Scrub, Aromatherapy Floral Bath or Herbal Steam, Mandara Massage, Refresher Facial or Foot Massage

- Mandara Massage: The signature treatment is performed by two therapists working together with a unique blend of five different massage styles – Shiatsu, Thai, Hawaiian Lomi Lomi, Swedish and Balinese.

- Elemis Skin Specific Facial: The facial combines the power of absolutes with true premium grade essential oils, to treat the skin at the deepest level, gently but surely. Specialized Eastern massage movements help to stimulate and oxygenate skin, whilst bringing the body and mind into balance.

- SPA OFFER: Valid through 12/31/10: Go to: http://www.mandaraspa.com/spa/Koror-Palau-Pacific-Resort.aspx for choice of complimentary Refresher Facial or Back Massage, when another treatment is purchased AND 10% off selected retail item, when making a booking

The Path to Palau

For those who happen to be Survivor fans, there is no need to introduce the incredible destination of Palau. Consistently ranked as one of the world's best dive destinations, Palau is the ultimate paradise for outdoor enthusiasts and adventurous travelers.