Just When You Think It Can’t Get Any Better

by Genivieve McCormick
Originally published at ScientificAmerican.com

Today, June 3, was our last day in Palau, and it was definitely a day to remember. We went on a kayaking tour around the Rock Islands led by one of the most inspirational, intelligent and adventurous people I’ve ever met in my life. Our tour guide Ron Leidich, a zoologist, showed and taught me more in one day about the marine and terrestrial environment, history and culture of Palau than I thought possible on a simple kayak tour. I would like to share two of his stories with you.

Bunker view from the outside. Photo by Genivieve McCormick.

One of the places Ron brought us launched us deep into the history of the islands. On a quest for a good place to cliff jump one day, Ron stumbled across a place that hadn’t been seen or touched in more than 50 years. It was a Japanese bunker from World War II filled with several artifacts and other pieces of history like hundreds of empty Japanese-brand beer bottles brought to create jet-fueled rag “bombs” to be thrown on passing troops. The concrete bunker was small, fit for up to maybe five soldiers tightly packed together, and included a bench and two windows — one large and square, as if designed for gunfire; the other was small and round.

Bunker view from the inside. Photo by Genivieve McCormick.

For two years, Ron struggled to find the purpose of this smaller window, until one day on a whim, he traveled to the spot directly within eyesight of the window only to discover yet another bunker. The windows were designed for signaling purposes. Following this theory Ron was able to find a series of several bunkers that, when marked on a map, revealed that they (in addition to two other sets of several bunkers) cut off every channel through the islands that led to the city of Koror. They were protected from invasion on all sides. Luckily the city never came under attack from American forces and those hidden Japanese defenses were futile.

Drawings and writing on the walls of a bunker in different languages. Photos by Genivieve McCormick.

The next story I have recounts one of the other places that Ron led us through on our kayaks. It can only be accessed at close to zero tide for it involves slipping under a stretch of cave that only appears when the water lever sinks very low. Without this knowledge of the tides you might pass right on by never knowing this place existed. It turned out to be one of the coolest places I’ve ever had the privilege of visiting.

The other side of the cave revealed a completely enclosed marine lake, protected on all sides by the steep sloping jungle walls of the surrounding island. According to Ron, even when 45-knot winds are whipping the outer islands, the surface of this lake is smooth as glass.

Students leaving the mouth of the cave to the marine lake. Photo by Genivieve McCormick.

Every two decades or so, a tsunami rolls through and destroys much of the corals of the fringing reefs around the islands — much like how a rogue wildfire clears the way for new terrestrial growth. This ancient lake, however, has never been disturbed by a tropical storm or tsunami, and as a result, some of the corals here have been growing undisturbed for hundreds and even thousands of years. Their biggest threat lies on all sides, as many of the species of corals here are in a constant battle for space with other species of corals.

Delicate basket corals. Photo by Genivieve McCormick.

Some have formed giant delicate baskets and have developed the most intricate and unique shapes, colors and patterns I’ve ever seen. We were fortunate enough to snorkel the circumference of the lake — without fins, as that would damage some of the delicate corals. The lake itself is not very big, and only goes to about 60 feet deep, where about a million close relatives of the box jellyfish lie waiting for night to fall when they rise to the surface.

Hostile takeovers of corals competing for space. Photo by Genivieve McCormick.

I felt very lucky to have been able to witness this lake and the Japanese bunkers since such a limited number of people have been fortunate enough to see them. And being led by the discoverer of both of these places made it much more special, as if he were sharing some of his island secrets with our group of 24 USC explorers. Throughout the entire day, I was impressed with Ron’s detailed and intimate knowledge of most of the flora and fauna of the island. He also knew about most species of every marine environment we encountered as well. Not only is his knowledge of zoology extensive, he is also credited with many advances in our scientific understanding of many ecosystems.

For example, Ron discovered that corals synchronize their spawning with the phases of the moon. He witnessed the spawning by accident and then launched a three-year study to determine that it is only one night a year. Three days after the full moon in April, for about two hours, every species of coral release their gametes and try to maximize the probability of fertilization. He also discovered that a certain type of jungle flower is specially designed to spread its pollen by sticking to the face of the lizard (which he also discovered as the main pollinator) that feeds on its nectar.

Having Ron as a tour guide was an enlightening experience, and one that I will not soon forget. The islands of this adventureland hold many secrets, and it is my hope that one day I am fortunate enough return to Palau and help uncover them.

Genivieve McCormick is a senior in USC Dornsife working toward a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies.

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