Palauan Mermaids

By Christina Irvin

Originally published at ScientificAmerican.com

Sirens are mythical, mermaid-like sea creatures that lure ships and seafarers into dangerous waters with their beauty and songs. These legends are rooted in Greek mythology – particularly in Homer’s The Illiad. Interestingly, for more than 600 years after Homer’s time, early explorers believed that the oceans were home to mermaids and monsters. As we know today, these creatures were not imagined, but likely slow moving, herbivorous marine mammals known as manatees and dugongs (native to the tropical Atlantic and Indo-West Pacific Oceans, respectively).

Comoros Island 2009 First Day Stamp Cover commemorating the dugong.

Palau is the only Micronesian island known to have a resident population of dugongs. Known as Mesekiu (Palauan for “sea mermaid), these animals once played a major role in Palauan culture. Traditionally eaten during celebrated feasts and special occasions, specific parts of the dugong skeleton (i.e., vertebrae) signified the rank of chief in Palauan society. Although the killing of these magnificent creatures is no longer permitted, habitat degradation (i.e., loss of seagrass meadows) and hunting by unscrupulous poachers (dugong meat can fetch exorbitant prices on the black market) poses a significant threat. Nearly extinct in Palauan waters and endangered at a global scale, the fate of these organisms is uncertain.

Not surprisingly, under State, Federal, and International Law, dugongs are protected throughout their habitat range, which includes the coastal and inland waters from eastern Africa to the Solomon Islands in the western Pacific. In Palau, the penalties for harming these creatures and destroying critical habitat carries a minimum fine of $10,000 and up to three years in jail.

Author photo by Jim Haw.

In 2011, the Etpison Museum, together with local scientists and officials, initiated a public awareness campaign celebrating the ‘Pacific Year of the Dugong,’ which helped to establish Palauan waters (more than 230,000 square miles total) as a marine mammal sanctuary. Add to this the fact that Palauan waters also are a marine sanctuary for sharks and it is easy to see why the country is viewed as a global model for the protection and conservation of environmental resources. Protection of these shy creatures is important not only for the preservation of the species but also for maintaining a key piece of Palauan culture and legend.

About the Author: Christina Irvin is a senior in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and will graduate with a BA in Environmental Studies. She has a strong interest in marine policy and management and looks forward to pursuing a graduate degree.

Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. This course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam and Palau in Micronesia.

Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies David Ginsburg,, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.

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