During typhoon Haiyan all concerns were not only on Kayangel, the area where the eye of the typhoon passed, but also on Ulong and Ngemelis, the two main diving areas of Palau.
The December 2012 Typhoon Bopha, with its strong winds coming from the south-east, damaged the east diving zones of Palau which will take several years to recover. This time, with winds coming from south west, the concerns were for Ulong and Ngemelis during Haiyan, but fortunately, after underwater and aerial inspections, both areas haven't been damaged and the underwater visibility and marine life have remained intact.
Below are two photos of the damage done to Kayangel atoll, taken by Patrick Colin.
Manta ID Palau Project: The Latest Manta Trust Collaboration
Manta Trust, an UK Charity that coordinates research and conservation efforts about mantas all around the world, has recently included Palau as one their new projects with Mandy Etpison as the project leader.
The Manta ID Palau Project was formed to learn more about the life cycle, population demographics, reproduction, habitat usage and anthropogenic pressures facing the population of reef mantas which inhabit Palauan waters. In recent years tourism has greatly increased around the pristine reefs of Palau, giving cause for concern for the local population of manta rays and how they should be best managed. Fleets of Chinese and Japanese boats also legally operate in Palauan waters and given the increasing demand for manta ray gill plates there is concern that illegal manta ray fisheries could begin, hence increasing the urgency to learn more about how these animals spend their time in Palauan waters.
Increase local awareness and site management
Identify new sites using aerial & time-lapse surveys
Study manta movements around Palau
Continuing photo ID with website updates
Project Start Date: January 2010
Why this is important:
Palau was always known for its schooling fish and sharks, while neighboring Yap was better known for its manta rays. In the last 5 years however, Palau has also become better known for its mantas, especially at German Channel, a key manta ray cleaning and feeding site which is considered by most people to be one of the top three dive spots in Palau.
Hundreds of divers and snorkelers visit this site on a daily basis during manta season. In addition to being a hotspot for manta rays, this area is also a busy boat-traffic channel. Without effective site management the threats to manta rays and tourists from speeding boats will continue to be an increasing problem. Since this project has begun a number of manta rays with boat propeller scars have been observed. In addition, as tourism levels have increased anecdotal evidence from dive guides using the site on a regular basis suggests that mantas are preferentially using deeper cleaning stations to avoid interacting with the high volume of tourists.
In order to effectively protect these mantas from the increasing anthropogenic pressures more must be learnt about their movements and behaviors in order for informed and effective management measures to be implemented which can counteract these threats.
In addition to the pressures of tourism, Palau has over 75 Chinese longline vessels and more than 8 Japanese purseiners operating legally in its waters, several of which have been caught participating in illegal shark finning in the past. With the strong demand for manta gill plates in Asian markets this could also pose a threat to the mantas, so establishing baseline data on the manta population will help to identify any population declines which may occur as a result of these illegal fisheries.
Local culture and awareness are also a vital piece of the puzzle in managing these species. Palauan culture has strong links with the ocean, mantas and mobulas have fortunately never been targeted as a fisheries species, in fact Palauans fear these mobulids, but hold other rays such as the eagle ray in high esteem honoring it as a God.
The Republic of Palau is an island nation located in the western Pacific Ocean made up of some 250 islands with a total land area of just 458km2 and a 200 nautical mile ocean economic zone. The economy of this small nation relies heavily on the sea with the main sources of income based in fisheries and tourism. Tourism is a growing area and manta rays are playing an increasing role in what draws many of the tourists to Palau.
At some dive sites records of individual mantas date back over twenty years, and due to high numbers of juveniles observed and courtship behaviors seen it is believed that these sites might also be vital mating and nursery areas.
As well as photo-ID studies this project is now incorporating both time lapse and aerial surveys to gather further details on the Palauan manta population. Camera traps are being set at key sites to look at habitat usage and have contributed over 50 new IDs to the project. Aerial surveys from helicopters have been used since 2013 to identify new manta ray aggregation sites.
By investing in learning more about manta ray habitat use it is hoped that the project will be able to make robust scientific suggestions about managing mantas rays and tourism in Palau, enabling operators to select from a wider range of sites, therefore reducing pressure at key areas (such as German Channel) as well as informing tourism management solutions. In addition, by surveying over this broader area the project will be able to learn and understand much more about the movements of manta rays in Palauan waters and the wider scale management requirements for this species including the management of the threat of illegal fisheries.
Work towards the implementation of national protective legislation for manta rays in Palau.
At the end of the 2013 season a manta report will be produced detailing the project’s findings, upon which suggestions for site management at the key manta tourism sites will also be made.
Continue the ongoing program of monitoring the numbers and identities of individually recognizable reef manta rays in Palau using the Photo ID Programme from which estimates of the total manta population can be made for Palauan waters.
We will continue to update the manta website and share our information with tourists and local tour operators in the coming years, and encourage locals and tourists to submit their photos for our ID database.
Assess and compare the apparent range of movement patterns exhibited by the individually recognized reef manta rays in Palau.
Record any signs of reproductive activity among reef mantas at the key study areas, or any other site in Palau.
Monitor any threats to the reef manta population and their habitat by monitoring tourism activities at key manta aggregation sites and recording incidences of targeted or accidental injury.
Publication and distribution of children’s activity booklets on manta rays and dugongs to all 7/8 graders in Palau (March 2013).
Photographically identified over 220 individual mantas in Palau, all of which are posted on the project’s website: www.mantaIDpalau.org.
Partners & Sponsors:
Without the support of our partners and the generous sponsorship received we would not be able to achieve our work in Palau. We are therefore very grateful to these organizations:
Coral Reef Research Foundation
Rock Island Helicopters
Palau Pacific Resort
Managing Mantas in Palau by Mandy Etpison
Since I first came to Palau in 1985 to work as a dive instructor, I have been fascinated with exploring the dense forests and waters of this tiny island group. While running a tour/dive operation with my husband, I spent several years studying Palau’s culture and endemic forest birds, resulting in the opening of our small private museum and the publication of my Palau books. But I always return to my first love, the ocean and diving, with sharks and rays being my favorites.
The German Channel and Devilfish City manta cleaning stations have long been known to local dive operators, but seeing a manta ray was always hit and miss because no one really knew exactly when to look for them. Like much marine life in Palau, the manta movements and the plankton they feed upon are tied to the lunar cycles, the wind and tides, and we have now learned to carefully time our manta trips to maximize our chances of a memorable encounter.
After 3-tank dive packages became popular around 2005, German Channel was used as a standard afternoon 3rd dive. Observing the mantas on an almost daily basis, we found out that these rays do not only come in to the cleaning stations at this site, but also feed and mate right outside the mouth of the channel. It also appears that this is an important seasonal birthing site where small juvenile mantas are spotted every year. Today, German Channel is one of the top three dive spots in Palau and unfortunately tourism and boat pressure is starting to affect the resident manta rays here. I have photographed some of the large resident females for over 20 years and I hate seeing scars from fishing hooks, boat strikes, mooring lines and propellers which now increasingly cover their bodies.
I was inspired by the articles about Hanifaru Bay to find out more about our local mantas, and started the Palau manta ray photo ID project (www.mantaIDpalau.org) in 2010. In the two years that followed we were able to identify over 200 mantas, for the first time we saw feeding aggregations of over 70 reef mantas and have come to find that there are many more manta sites around Palau. The number of mantas we have identified amazed even local dive guides, because everyone had always believed our close neighbour Yap had far more mantas than Palau. As well as building up this core baseline data, which is vital to understanding our manta population, this year we also started using time-lapse cameras and helicopter surveys to identify new mantas, find new feeding sites and track their movements around Palau’s reefs.
We will continue to work with local states and stakeholders in the next few years to raise awareness and to explain the tourism potential of manta rays, while making recommendations for site management. I am very excited to team up with the Manta Trust Team, and have their expertise and experience available to assist us with our local efforts.
Prince Albert of Monaco in Palau
Last 11th of March, Prince Albert of Monaco and his wife, Princess Charlene, came to visit Palau as part of their Pacific Tour.
Etpison Museum, with NECO Marine dive shop as one of the local sponsors, runs an education program called "Palau Dugong Awareness campaign" with main goal to educate Palauans about the dugong, Palau's most endangered marine species, survey their feeding grounds and daily routes, and work with local government agencies to improve enforcement on illegal poaching. Indeed, Palauans still hunt and eat dugongs, and poaching remains a problem despite of local laws protecting the dugong.
One of the activities undertaken in 2011 was the publication and distribution to local schools, libraries, and government agencies of an educational booklet about these endangered mammals. In 2013, with founds from the Principality of Monaco though the United Nations Environmental Programme, a new kids booklet as well as posters were published for all 7th and 8th graders in Palau.
The distribution of those booklets to local schools coincided with the visit of Prince Albert of Monaco and his wife, Princess Charlene, to Palau. Prince Albert, known for his conservation efforts and donations, handed out those booklets to the kids and made a speech announcing the importance of protecting this rare marine mammals, especially in Palau where there is a very small and isolated dugong population, with possibly only a few hundred animals.
New Baby Born Manta in German Channel - February 2013
A new born manta ray has been observed at German Channel. The new baby born manta, named Eddy (M73), was suspected at first to be the baby of Mechas (F1) who was last time seen pregnant in December 2012. However, few days later, Mechas and Romana were both seen pregnant at German Channel. So, Eddy's mother is still a mystery! Indeed, as soon as baby Manta rays are born, they have to look after themselves, find their own food and hide from sharks that try to eat them. They stay around reef channels until they are large enough to go out into open ocean, unfortunately by staying around they risk to be caught by fishing hooks like what happened to Eddy who already has some marks on his belly.
Update of Manta ID Palau Database with Over 200 Identified Mantas - February 2013
The Etpison Museum, with NECO Marine as one of the sponsors, builds a database called www.mantaidpalau.org to collect information on Palau's individual mantas and shares what is learned from observing and photographing them in Palau for the last 25 years. Recently, this database has been updated with all the newly identified mantas. Now, Manta ID Palau has over 200 mantas properly photographed and identified, 16 of which are Black Mantas. The last additions were Pumpkin, Tiki (2 females) and Scorpio (Male), from last November.
One of the new features of the website is the new section: "German Channel favorites" where the most popular mantas in German Channel are shown. They also encourage divers to share their photographs of mantas not shown on the database.
If you would like to learn how to identify the mantas and to position yourself under water so not to scare them away. NECO Marine has a PADI dive specialty course: “Manta Identification Diver Palau”, a two day course where you can find out more about Palau’s manta rays and how to observe them best.
Identification of 2 New Mantas in German Channel - November 2012
The last new moon of November, Mandy Etpison, the founder of Manta ID Palau Project, went diving to update the manta database. Twelve mantas were seen feeding at German Channel, 2 of which are newly identified female Mantas.
Manta ID Palau Project, with sponsorship from NECO Marine, builds a database to collect information on Palau's individual mantas and shares what is learned from observing and photographing them in Palau for the last 25 years. They also encourage divers to share their photographs of mantas in case they are still not listed on the database: www.mantaidpalau.org.
Manta rays have black markings on their bellies that are like fingerprints, and make each individual easy to identify. There are currently 103 individual mantas clearly identified, 45 males and 58 females, which are all listed on the website. The mantas found were Mechas, Camy, Silveryback, Romana, Gypsy, Freckles, Chico and F14. All of them very familiar to Mandy. The 2 newly identified mantas were named Pumpkin and Tiki. Two other mantas are still to be identified! Maybe 2 more new mantas? Some other sad news is that Mechas has new wounds from boat propellers.
If you would like to learn how to identify the mantas and to position yourself under water so not to scare them away. NECO Marine has a PADI dive specialty course: “Manta Identification Diver Palau”, a two day course where you can find out more about Palau’s manta rays and how to observe them best. Specialty Instructor Fabio Esposito will be teaching the course, and says he would like to see all the dive guides in Palau give better briefings to their guests about the mantas, and especially how to behave around them.
New Jellyfish Lake, Manta Rays, and Dugongs Booklets for 2012
Now available at the Neco Marine gift shop and local stores are three 45-page booklets on Palau:
Ongeim'l Tketau / Jellyfish Lake
Ouklemedaol / Manta Rays
Mesekiu / Dugongs (updated reprint from 2011 Dugong Awareness Campaign)
These booklets are loaded with new photographs and interesting information for both visitors and Palauans. The Etpison Museum together with Neco Marine will be publishing 2-3 new booklets every year on various Palauan attractions and wildlife. Upcoming subjects will include: Pelagic Palau, Spawning Aggregations, Endemic Forest Birds, and the Rock Islands.
PADI Palau Manta ID Distinctive Specialty
Although Yap has become known for their regular reef manta encounters, Palau has a resident population of mantas around its channels that we are just starting to learn about. We have been photographing mantas for years, and are building up a database of belly IDs and unusual behavior for the Palau mantas. During the months of September to May each year, larger mantas visit the channels in Palau to mate and give birth. So far, over 100 different individual mantas have been photographed in Palau just this last season in four different locations. Six pregnant mantas were recorded this season at German Channel alone, and four newborn mantas. The largest gathering of feeding mantas ever filmed in Palau of over 60 individuals together took place just this March. We are starting a separate website just for the mantas, and encourage you to send us any photos or information you may have on Palau's mantas, so for more manta information, please check out: www.MantaIDPalau.org
Neco Marine's Fabio Esposito now offers a new PADI Manta ID Distinctive Specialty course to our visiting guests, so you can learn more about Palau's mantas while diving with us.
Palau Dugong Awareness Campaign
Neco Marine is also a partner for the PALAU DUGONG AWARENESS CAMPAIGN, which is coordinated by Mandy Etpison and supported by local NGOs, the Bureau of Marine Resources, Koror State, and Fish and Wildlife. The shy dugong sea cow is Palau's most endangered marine mammal, and little is known about it. Palau has the smallest and most isolated dugong population in the world, with possibly less than 200 animals. Palauans still hunt and eat dugongs, and hunting remains a problem in spite of local laws protecting the dugong. The awareness campaign aims to educate Palauans about the dugong, survey their feeding grounds and daily routes, and work with local government agencies to improve enforcement on illegal poaching. So far the campaign has distributed educational materials like stickers, folders and posters to local schools, tour operators and government agencies, aired dugong awareness messages on local TV and news, and started the surveys by boat and helicopter, which will continue over the next year. A 12 feet life-sized wooden statue of a dugong mother with two calves made by the Etpison Museum was presented to the Minister of State for display in August 2010. The President of Palau named the statue, the mother "Tarkid" (part of us) and the calves "Mesekemam" (look out for us).
A 45-page free dugong educational booklet was distributed to all local schools, libraries, and government agencies in January 2011. The Palau awareness campaign has now evolved into a regional campaign supported by SPREP and UNEP/CMS with other pacific range countries such as PNG, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Australia, and the Solomon Islands. The regional launch was held in Palau on March 14, 2011.
Below is a short documentary that aired on CNN in August 2011 about the dugongs of Palau.
Critter Corner: Dugongs
The dugong (Dugong dugon) is a large, herbivorous, marine mammal which spans the waters of at least 37 countries throughout the Indo-Pacific. The word "dugong" derives from the Malay duyung, both meaning "lady of the sea."
The dugong has a fusiform body with no dorsal fin or hind limbs, instead possessing paddle-like forelimbs and a fluked tail which provides locomotion through vertical movement. An average adult reaches a length of 2.7 metres (8.9 ft) and weight of 150 to 300 kilograms (330 to 660 lb). The largest known dugong was a female landed off the Saurashtra coast of west India, measuring 4.03 metres (13.2 ft) and weighing 1,018 kilograms (2,240 lb).
The dugong is heavily dependent on seagrasses for subsistence and is thus restricted to the coastal habitats where they grow, with the largest dugong concentrations typically occurring in wide, shallow, protected areas such as bays, mangrove channels and the lee sides of large inshore islands. Its snout is sharply downturned, an adaptation for grazing and uprooting benthic seagrasses.
The dugong has been hunted for thousands of years for its meat and oil; its current distribution is reduced and disjunct, and many populations are close to extinction. Despite being legally protected in many countries throughout their range, the main causes of population decline remain anthropogenic and include hunting, habitat degradation, and fishing-related fatalities. With its long lifespan of 70 years or more, and slow rate of reproduction, the dugong is especially vulnerable to these types of exploitation.
Did you know...
Fish supply the greatest percentage of the world's protein consumed by humans, and most of the world's major fisheries are being fished at levels above their maximum sustainable yield; some regions are severely over-fished.