by Michele Felberg
Our last day in Palau was spent on a kayak tour of the Rock Islands led by Ron Leidich, a zoologist from the United States. We spent the morning paddling through calm, pristine waters, stopping every now and again to snorkel and to observe the coral growths or to explore World War II remnants in the jungle. While the corals we encountered were healthy and flourishing, because of the exposure the reefs had to the open oceans, about every 15 or 20 years a typhoon comes through that is strong enough to wipe away the corals, clearing room for the ecosystem to start all over again. This natural process of destruction and regrowth is in fact helpful for the coral so they don’t have enough time to grow large enough where space becomes limited.
We then proceeded to a location where a mere four times a month the tides are low enough to reveal a low tunnel that leads to a marine lake. Mr. Leidich told us that he uncovered this lake through his own exploration, and that the contents of this secret lake where even more astounding than uncovering it. He called it Disney Lake.
Because the lake is contained by one of the Rock Islands, with very limited access to the open ocean, it is completely protected from raging typhoons and other destructive storms. Yet, because the lake is connected to the ocean by the small tunnel, it allowed for corals polyps, once spawned, to find their way to the secret lake. Once the singular polyps latch onto a patch of lake wall that is suitable, they begin to bud asexually until they can otherwise sexually reproduce. This creates a flourishing colony.
What is so special about Disney Lake is that because it is completely protected from all storms, the coral is never wiped out like those living in the open ocean. They have been able to grow for hundreds of years, and because of this unhindered growth, the corals began to compete with one another for space in a fierce battle for the precious resource. This has led to corals growing on top of one another. This phenomenon is not seen in any open water coral, and is truly amazing.
Another benefit of living in complete protection is that coral can grow in shapes that would be quickly destroyed by strong waves or tides, the main form being the coral basket. There are baskets within the lake that are hundreds of years old, yet so thin and fragile that a dive light can shine right through their structure.
Treasures such as Disney Lake are something to be marveled at and respected. Mr. Leidich is the perfect example of a good steward, he only takes small groups that he is certain will be respectful of the delicate environment as a means of preserving this ancient ecosystems. He wants the wonders of Disney Lake to be appreciated and he uses this unique coral system as a learning experience, where my classmates and I were enlightened to a world of corals we had never seen before.
Michele Felberg is entering her junior year at USC Dornsife, where she is getting her B.S. in environmental studies and a minor in economics. Michele has had a lifetime of passion for the environment and hopes to continue down a marine ecosystem research career path.