The customs officer stamps the Palau Pledge on my passport and demands I sign it.
I’m in the middle of the Pacific Ocean a thousand miles from the nearest landmass because a former dive journalist assured me that this tiny island country has the best diving in the world. I desperately want this to be true. Diving Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in 2016, when broiling waters sent this world wonder into hospice, plunged me into eco-grief. Since then, over half of the reef is dead and a billion animals just died in the fires incinerating Australia. I’m hoping that Palau — which governs a marine sanctuary bigger than California and a resident human population less than half the size of my Los Angeles neighborhood — will soothe my grief.
I read the Palau Pledge and have my doubts.
Children of Palau, I take this pledge, as your guest, to preserve and protect your beautiful and unique island home. I vow to tread lightly, act kindly and explore mindfully. I shall not take what is not given. I shall not harm what does not harm me. The only footprints I leave are those that will wash away.
Don’t get me wrong. The statement thrills me. But can a simple pledge of a country that only has 21,000 people really hold back the ravages of the Anthropocene? I’m skeptical that a pristine coral reef with abundant marine life awaits me on the other side of these words. The great oceanographer, Sylvia Earle’s answer to the question, “Where’s the best diving?” is “Anywhere 50 years ago.”
So imagine my astonishment when I enter Palau and encounter the best diving of my life.
I love coral reefs. Viscerally. The reef sustains plumes of beings — yet, it too, is a living creature. The ocean decenters me. Every breath of oxygen through my assisted breathing apparatus is accounted for. Life abounds at so many scales from the microscopic to the pelagic that no matter how slowly I drift I can’t absorb everything I see. If I catch the passage of a school of sharks I’ll miss the skirmishes of minute purple fish or the translucent sea worms swaying like synchronized dancers in the sand. There are lives hidden within the labyrinths of coral that I will never see, nor will I follow a turtle, ray or octopus all the way down to mysterious depths. This reminder that the world is bigger than I can ever know brings a sense of peace and belonging, wonder and excitement that I assign to the word, eutierria.
It’s a word I learned in Glenn Albrecht’s book, “Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World.”
Eutierria = A positive and good feeling of oneness with the Earth and its life forces where the boundaries between self and the rest of nature are obliterated and a deep sense of peace and connectedness pervades consciousness.
The Rock Islands of Palau have been gorgeous for millennia, but this place was not always a paradise. During the World War I, the Germans cut a channel through the reef to carry guano from its many bat caves. Today, the German Channel is a popular dive site frequented by manta rays. Ships torpedoed in 1944 during a gruesome battle when the U.S. captured Palau from Japan remain sunk. An eco-friendly resort occupies what was once a landing strip for WWII Japanese fighter planes. The Rock Islands are now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
It was only in 2015 that Palau’s president signed into law the Palau National Marine Sanctuary Act to protect its marine ecosystems and create vast no fishing zones. A local dive guide tells me that when the sanctuary was first enacted, Palauans resented that they could no longer step on the small islands which became off-limits to people. Today, overwhelmingly, they are proud of their sanctuary. Their president is popular. Marine life flourishes.
The Palau Pledge I signed at the airport was created in 2018, as a response to many of the 170,000 tourists coming each year who damaged the reefs. I try to I honor the pledge by treading lightly and taking only what is given. The gift I take is this: the experience of eutierria. I may have learned the word in a book, but the actions and conservation policies of the people in this tiny island country created the conditions that enabled me to experience its meaning.
My time here is transient and a privilege. A week after returning home to my life in Los Angeles, I can scarcely believe that I was in such a beautiful place. Yet, even as the sensations of those dives slip away, the feeling of eutierria lingers. I feel it as I listen to neighborhood crows while I walk around my block. I inhale it in the waft of ocean air zipping across the west side of this city.
Even as sea levels rise, Palau inspires, immersing me in a story of regeneration.
This post was previously published on Greener Together and is republished here with permission from the author.
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Photo credit: Palau Pledge