preliminary D R A F T -- 1/91





To the north and directly adjacent to Bliliou lie a spectacular interplay of reefs, lagoon, and tiny islands stretching the entire way to Oreor. Among a small cult of divers and marine biologists, this place is widely celebrated as the "Rock Islands" -- one of the scenic and biologic gems of this planet.


The Reefs. At the southern end of the lagoon, in sight of Bliliou and lying northwest is an extraordinary barrier reef, a part of that which surrounds much of the archipelago. At most "walls" along the outside edge of the barrier reef, the coral formations' vertical base may begin only a few feet below the surface and drop, sometimes vertically, to depths of more than a thousand feet. Names like the "Blue Corner," "Ngemelis," the "Blue Hole," and "Peleliu Wall" describe world class dive sites. Here, giant sea fans and soft coral grow out from the walls in hues of yellow, orange, red, and pink, and tunnels, both horizontal and vertical, intersect their faces. A phenomenal variety of fish swim along the walls, including jacks, tuna, snappers, parrotfish, groupers, barracuda, sharks, rays, and sea turtles.

At Ngemelis "The Wall" begins just at the surface and plunges vertically a straight 1,000 feet and ultimately to depths of 18,000 feet. Currents brush laterally along this outer barrier, eroding the wall face with scallops and caves but mostly constantly nourishing a vertical paradise of soft corals and schools of reef fishes. The great barrier reef surrounds a good deal of the islands north of Bliliou -- but "The Wall" in sight of Bloody Nose Ridge is one of the most spectacular and popular.

On the lagoon or inner side of Ngemelis, the reef extends broadly at tidewater as a level back reef extensively covered with sand. At low tide miles of pristine beaches lie exposed.

"The Wall," on the outer edge of Palau's great barrier reef north of Bliliou "The Wall," on the outer edge of Palau's great barrier reef north of Bliliou is regarded to be one of the premier dive spots of the world.

The Islands. From Ngemelis directly north across lagoon waters is a compact maze of tiny islands. These are the Ngerukuid islands. Ngerukuid translates to seventy. Aerial views of the Seventy Islands, widely displayed on book covers, posters, and magazine illustrations than any other feature of this country, are symbolic of Palau.

Several things contribute to the beauty of this island group: brilliant, transparent colors of the sky and water; the clarity of the lagoon waters; dazzling white sand beaches; and the quantity and form of the small islands.

The Rock Islands are limestone of coral origin. Obviously, they are remnants of a earlier array of barrier and patch reefs similar to the reefs of today at Palau -- except the sea level then was some 250 to 300 feet higher. The sea level has been fairly constant for some time, so the easily dissolved limestone at all the Rock Islands are severely undercut at their waterline. From water level, many appear as great mushrooms. At many places, it is very difficult or impossible to get ashore to the islands. Most are uninhabited, and they are fine biologic remnants with native limestone forests and a complete array of native bird life. Hawksbill and green sea turtles haul in on the scattered sand beaches to nest. Ulong Island, where Captain Henry Wilson's ship, the Antelope, went aground in 1700, is the site of many ancient rock paintings used to record important events. Yet scenic beauty is the dominating character of these Rock Islands. They are unique and outstanding.

The porous, fractured, eroded nature of these islands clearly illustrates the kind of landscape the Japanese defenders used to fortify and barricade at Bloody Nose Ridge, for that place too is geologically like the Rock Islands.

North and east of Seventy Islands and between them and the capital, Oreor, are two prominent island groups, Mecherchar (Eil Malk) and Ngerukdabel (Urukthapel). Each of these has a much larger main island, though still entirely of karst topography limestone.

Soils. The richness of the Rock Islands' vegetation disguises the infertility of the soil. The substrate here consist of highly fissured, eroded, and loose limestone rock. No real soil layer has developed. The vegetation grows out of the coral limestone which is covered by a thin layer of leaves and humus. The plants live largely off one another, each recycling the other with little or no residue.

Vegetation. The Rock Islands are not exemplary as the finest of Palau's forests; these they lie on the largest island, Babeldaob, north of Oreor. The vegetation of the Rock Islands, because of its uniqueness, has been characterized as distinct subtype of the limestone forest type. The forest found growing on the steep, coralline limestone islands is diverse in species composition, but fairly homogeneous throughout the Rock Islands and has produced what appears to be a stable ecosystem. Some variety does exist from island to island, particularly the forests on the two largest islands of Eil Malk and Urukthapel. On these two islands are a few strands of enormous old trees found mainly in low areas where they have been sheltered from typhoons. There are small scattered areas of mangrove, coconut palm and swamp forest here too. Most of the mangrove and swamp forest are found adjacent or near the marine lakes. The coconut palm, planted previously for commercial purposes, is found on a few islands as remnants.

Some of the more common forest species of the Rock Islands include the endemic palms Gulubia palauensis and Ptychosperma palauensis, and the forest trees Semecarpus venenosus, Intsia bijuga, Psychotria spp., Premna obtusifolia, Cordia spp., Clerodendrum inerme, and Bikkia palauensis. Pandanus spp. and Dracaena multiflora are also common in the understory. Semecarpus, called tonget by Palauans, is to be avoided: it produces an acutely irritating oil which causes an itchy skin rash and blisters if the tree is touched.

All the plant species listed for Bliliou on Table C are also found throughout the Rock Islands, plus the two endemic palms, Gulubia palauensis and Ptychosperma palauensis.


The unique limestone forests of the Rock Islands are densely vegetated

The unique limestone forests of the Rock Islands are densely vegetated despite the lack of a humus layer. This native forest, on steep, craggy, limestone islands, remains in a largely pristine condition.




Palau's two endemic palms are threatened by the greater sulfur-crested cockatoo, first introduced to the Rock Islands in the 1940's. The cockatoo feeds on the heart of the two palms causing the trees to die. Large strands of these palms have already been destroyed.

The Lagoon. Palau's lagoon ranges in depth from just a few feet to about 130 feet. The waters here are clear and often calm to a glass-like stillness. Outside the reef, depths drop quickly to more than a thousand feet along sheer vertical walls and finally to great depths (the Palau Trench on the east reaches 27,000 feet; the ocean floor on the Philippine Sea side is 18,000 to 20,000 feet).

The lagoon waters are characterized by an exceptional diversity of marine life. Marine biologists have collected more than a dozen new species of fish and one new genus along Palau's reefs. The total number of fish species in these waters is believed to be more than 1,000 and there are about 700 different types of coral and anemones. Rare species such as dugongs (sea cows), sea turtles, and giant clams inhabit these waters. Sea snakes, barracudas, manta rays, and sharks are common.

Ngemelis and Iilblan in the foreground, the Ngerukuid group (Seventy Islands) in the middle background Ngemelis and Iilblan in the foreground, the Ngerukuid group (Seventy Islands) in the middle background, and, from left to right in the far background, Ulong, Ngeruangl, and the western end of the large island of Ngerukdabel.


Set within the calm waters of the lagoon are the small islands of Bablomekang and Ngesomel with Ioulomekang just behind Set within the calm waters of the lagoon are the small islands of Bablomekang and Ngesomel with Ioulomekang just behind. Beyond are Ngercheu and Ngemelis and in the far distance at the southern end of the lagoon is Bliliou.


Figure 15. Rock Islands.

Figure 16. Detail 1. Rock Islands Resources

Figure 17. Detail 2 of Rock Islands Resources

Figure 18. Detail 3 of Rock Islands Resources

Figure 19. Detail 4 of Rock Islands Resources


Marine Lakes. One of the most significant natural resources of the Rock Islands is a series of biologically unique and fascinating marine sulfide lakes. Each of these lakes appears to have its own ecosystem, with its own biota of stingless jellyfish, mollusks, ascidians, and fish, as well as its own physical and chemical characteristics. They are found on the larger islands and number about 35 in all. The large island of Eil Malk contains 15 such lakes. The larger lakes provide habitat for enormous populations of jellyfish. Most of these lakes are ringed by mangrove forest. Their waters are generally very productive. The waters of the most well-known of these lakes, "Jellyfish" lake, apparently undergo no vertical mixing and the 12-acre lake has three distinct food chains. One species of jellyfish found in the lake exhibits an unusual horizontal and vertical swimming behavior. Another, "Spooky" lake, contains a large population of crocodiles and is surrounded by a striking and unusual tropical forest. Nearby "Hotwater" lake has been described as a solar lake because of the heat which accumulates about 50 feet below the surface, causing the temperature there to reach an unbelievable 100°F!


"Jellyfish" lake on the island of Eil Malk "Jellyfish" lake on the island of Eil Malk contains its own unique biota. The lake is accessible by trail. In the background is the Seventy Islands Preserve.



Birdlife. Birds are the most conspicuous animal in the Rock Islands. Again, due primarily to Palau's proximity to Southeast Asia, the birdlife here is diverse, the richest in all of Micronesia. Nearly all of Palau's resident land birds inhabit the limestone forests of the Rock Islands. The Rock Islands are the preferred habitat of the Palau Ground Dove, the Micronesian Megapode, and the Blue-faced Parrotfinch. The Palau Greater White-eye, an endemic, is found exclusively on the limestone substrates of the Rock Islands.

The Micronesian megapode, which is on the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Endangered Species List, is a resident of the Rock Islands (see Table I).

rufous night heron (Nycticorax caledonicus) A rufous night heron (Nycticorax caledonicus), called the Melabaob, standing next to a small clump of red mangrove.


cardinal honeyeater (Myzomela rubrata) The Chesisebangiau, or cardinal honeyeater (Myzomela rubrata), perched on a twig of ironwood.


Scenery. Scenic beauty is the dominating character of these Rock Islands. They are unique and an outstanding and beautiful feature of the tropical Pacific that gives the Republic of Palau world renown.

Table I.  Birds of the Rock Islands

great expanses of unspoiled white sand lie exposed along the inner side of Palau's barrier reef At low tide great expanses of unspoiled white sand lie exposed along the inner side of Palau's barrier reef.


Chemoi group lie on the east side of the barrier reef The Chemoi group lie on the east side of the barrier reef. A deep water channel separates the northern tip of Eil Malk from the island of Enidelchol. The Seventy Islands can be seen in the far distance.


Archeology. Of equal important to their scenic beauty and unique biological populations, many of the Rock Islands also contain the impressive and well-preserved remains of villages dating between approximately A.D. 1200 and 1450. These villages contain a variety of features that include stone platforms, wells, trails, defensive walls that span the lengths of beach coves, welled-in passes, burials, cooking platforms, caves, exquisitely-painted pictograph panels, and extensive midden scatters containing the rich remains of food shell, fish, and other animal bones, pottery fragments, shell and stone tools, At least 11 such villages are known, including five villages on Ngeruktabel, at least one extensive village in the Ngemelis group, and single villages on Ulong, Ngerchang, Omekang, and possibly Ulsbachel. In addition, at least one, and perhaps three, villages are present on Mecherchar (Eil Malk), and it is possible that villages were present on Ngesebus and other islands immediately north of Bliliou.

These villages have been described by Douglas Osborne (1966, 1979) and Jun Takayama (1979), and in considerable detail by a team of archeologists from the Center for Archaeological Investigations at Southern Illinois University (Masse, Snyder and Gumerman 1984; Masse 1989; Snyder and Butler 1990). These villages are extremely important resources in terms of their research and interpretive values, and in terms of the prominent place that they occupy in Palauan oral history. However, they are fragile resources and have thus far been incompletely studied.

In addition to these prehistoric remains, at least one Rock Island, Ngeruktabel, contains impressive World War II Japanese features. Of particular significance are those clustered around the Japanese lighthouse at Ngeremdiu.

Existing Uses

Recreation. Divers come from all over the world to experience the underwater world of Palau's lagoon and reefs (the lobby of the Hotel Nikko displays the logos of literally hundreds of diving clubs -- American, European, Australian, New Zealand). Most agree that no other place on earth offers such a variety of diving experiences. These range from diving along massive coral walls teeming with an incredible variety of marine life, exploring underground caves and grottos, to viewing sunken World War II Japanese airplanes and ships. It is also possible to dive in some of the larger marine lakes. Underwater visibility ranges from 50 to 80 within the lagoon to up to 200 feet along the outer edge of the reef.

Placid lagoon waters, a white sand beach and rustic accommodations make spots like this ideal for visitors to the Rock Islands. Placid lagoon waters, a white sand beach and rustic accommodations make spots like this ideal for visitors to the Rock Islands.

Presently, there are four commercial diving operators offering daily service to the waters of the Rock Islands. They are all located in the Oreor area at the harbor facilities at Malakal. Most trips consist of a full day, two-dive excursion which includes a picnic lunch on a white sand beach on one of the smaller of the Rock Islands. There are also two rustic resort operations in the Rock Islands. Facilities here consist of cottages with accommodations for food and overnight use. Picnic areas with pavilion and tables are numerous throughout the Rock Islands. These are used heavily by local people (who make extensive recreation use of the islands and lagoon) as well as tourists.

Fishing. Subsistence fishing takes place over much of the Rock Islands area. Although not now rigidly controlled or adhered to, traditional reef and lagoon tenure still exists here. Historically, this meant that the right to fish in the lagoon waters of a particular area was limited to those who resided there or to outsiders who had permission. This right was controlled by the chiefs of the village clusters. Today visitors (non-residents) are generally allowed to fish for subsistence but not commercially.

Land Use. Due to their steepness, lack of a soil cover and inaccessibility, nearly all of the Rock Islands remain in undisturbed limestone forest. The only exceptions are the small islands of Ngeanges south of Ngeruktabel and Ngesebus north of Bliliou, both have portions of which are in agroforest. There are also several structures on these two islands. Except for the few rustic facilities for tourists on the islands of Ulong, Ngeanges, Ngkesill, and Dmasech, no other developments exist on the Rock Islands. They remain pristine, largely unknown places.


Seventy Islands Preserve Palau's spectacular Seventy Islands Preserve, perhaps its most well-known landmark.


Conserving and Protecting Rock Islands Resources

It has been said that the wealth of Palau lies in its unique and beautiful waters. The Government of Palau has recognized this fact in several important ways. Article VI of Palau's Constitution states that it is the policy of the national government to conserve the natural environment. Specific to the Rock Island is Section 201 of the Palau Code which legally established the Ngerukewid (Seventy Island) Wildlife Preserve to ensure the continuing existence of the preserve which had been set up earlier in Trust Territory times. Consisting of an isolated cluster of small islands and the surrounding marine waters (boundaries are indefinite) in the southwest portion of the archipelago, the area was selected because of the special fauna found here, primarily birds and reptiles. In addition, the Government of Palau's various economic development plans discuss the need for protected area status for the entire Rock Islands area with specific conservation and use zones to be established within.

For more than a decade the Government of Palau has expressed a need for technical assistance to improve its ability to manage marine resources of the Rock Islands and the Seventy Island Preserve areas. Major problems which have been encountered within the preserve include the poaching of pigeons and sea turtle eggs on the beaches and on land, and uncontrolled fishing and shell fishing in the adjacent water area.

Of particular concern is protecting the two species of endemic palm found here from the cockatoo (Cacatua galerita). Introduced to Palau after World War II, this bird has since spread to most of the Rock Islands, including the Seventy Island Preserve. The cockatoo is especially fond of palm hearts and where they are numerous, has caused major damage to Palau's native palms.

The Bureau of Public Safety and the Division of Marine Resources, the government agencies responsible for protecting this vast area have been handicapped by a lack of manpower and equipment. As a result, the Rock Islands are left unpatrolled and the laws unenforced.

Other resource problems include trash and garbage left at picnic and camp sites, use of dynamite to fish, and foreign commercial fishermen poaching giant clams. None of these are trivial.

The trash and garbage has accumulated to the extent that rat populations are extreme on islands with picnic shelters. The rat abundance spreads human disease; threatens reproduction of some trees, palms, and native birds; and as word spreads through travel organizations, will depress the country's tourism trade. Fish dynamiting simply destroys a segment of the reef for more than a half century per shot. For a nation so dependent upon subsistence fishery, this may be tragically self-destructive.

Foreign commercial and local subsistence fisheries over exploiting the giant clam population is unfortunate. Giant clams can remain an extraordinary fine local subsistence food source and a dive/snorkel tourist attraction if the population is not decimated.

In the Rock Islands between Oreor and Bliliou, the government might also consider consolidating resource protection wardens of all types (fishery, terrestrial animals, forests, historic sites, submerged wrecks, historical sites, and enforcing garbage and sanitation at picnic sites) to a single group of Rock Islands patrol people. These people should first be expert people who know and care broadly about the Rock Islands resources and have empathy for those who come to fish, sightsee, and enjoy them.

At present, it may be that infrequent enforcement patrols are actually even more infrequent because the enforcement officer may have "more important cases" to him back in town, or a warden in one discipline either unknowingly or without responsibility doesn't "see" or respond to other discipline offenses. One foresees increased damage to submerged wreck sites and historic places, increased dynamiting, destruction of biota and pollution of the finest recreational sites without a more pragmatic protection system.

The Government of Palau has recognized the need for baseline environmental data on which to base the long-term management of the Rock Islands and the adjacent lagoon waters. Other areas which contain superlative natural, cultural, and scenic values have been identified for potential protected area status.

Any expanded protected area should be managed with the following conditions in mind: areas of biological significance, such as vulnerable breeding areas, should receive special protection as should endangered species habitat; special protection should also be given to areas of cultural significance, such as the remains of prehistoric villages; there should be provisions to allow for the continuation of subsistence fishing and, in certain areas, for commercial fishing; protection of scenic and recreation (tourist) areas and cultural features and provision for the setting aside of certain areas for aquaculture. Protected area status should also include a recognition of the traditional tenure (lagoon, reef and land) system of control by the village chiefs, as well as respect for the jurisdiction of the State of Oreor and the various private holdings.

Management Concepts

Management concepts for any large park or preserve area encompassing all or a portion of the Rock Islands should focus on maintaining the existing marine and terrestrial resources. Only those uses should be permitted which are judged to be consistent with the perpetuation and, where possible, restoration of the natural environment.

Natural resource management should be guided by the concept of perpetuation of the total natural environment or ecosystem. The native plant and animal life should be protected against harvesting, removal, destruction, harassment, or harm through human action, except fishing for subsistence use. Alien (non-native) species should not be allowed to displace native species.

Wildlife management should be directed toward maintaining the population and diversity of fish species; protecting native, endemic, and endangered bird species and other animals such as sea turtles, dugongs, and fruit bats.

Visitor use activities should consist of sightseeing by boat (with restrictions as to size and type), nature observation, photography, picnicking (only at selected sites), snorkeling, scuba diving (only when it can be accommodated without material alteration or disturbance of the reserve environment). Camping should be in designated locations only.

All development should be limited to those facilities needed for management and appropriate visitor use and enjoyment and only at designated sites. Developments should always harmonize with the site -- both in design and in materials used.


Bliliou looking north toward the Rock Islands. Bliliou looking north toward the Rock Islands. The airstrip is visible running up the middle of the island; beyond it lies Bloody Nose Ridge, now subdued by vegetation.

Boundary Options

Figure 20 shows the general extent of alternative areas for Palauans to consider setting aside as parks or preserves in order to protect the unique natural and cultural values found in the Rock Islands. Each of these areas contains a fine sampling of the Rock Islands environment. Together they form a scenic expanse of lagoon waters and island ecosystems operating in a largely balanced and self-sustaining fashion which is perhaps unsurpassed in the world.

Figure 20. Rock Islands Areas Worthy of National Park or Preserve Status


Palau's traditional land system has been replaced to some degree by tenure systems introduced by outsiders -- the Germans, Japanese, and Americans. However, on the lands and waters affected by the areas identified in this report as having park potential, traditional tenure continues to play an important role. Land here is still regarded as belonging to present and future generations of the clan and therefore cannot be sold. There is in Palau though an important distinction between the right to use land and the right to its title. The former is generally enforced through informal social control and the latter enforced through legal means. Consequently, it would appear that park lands could not realistically be protected through acquisition, either in fee or less-than-fee. On the other hand, if chiefs or the clans were willing to dedicate use of their lands for park purposes, this method would be consistent with the traditional tenure system and would not alienate Palauans from their land.

Essentially, the options calling for a U. S./ Palauan affiliation in managing historical and natural areas envision the creation of a partnership arrangement. This partnership would be based on the following: the dedication in perpetuity of certain lands and waters by Palauans (traditional chiefs, state governments, the Council of Chiefs, and the Government of Palau) for park purposes and providing some funding for park operations in return for the provision of technical assistance, training, and funding for park operations by the U. S. National Park Service.

The contribution by the U. S. is logical and appropriate because the events which took place on the island of Bliliou in the autumn of 1944 were important to the history of the United States.

For Palauans, allowing their lands to be dedicated for park purposes would be compensated by the economic development generated by the creation of new jobs and the likely, though gradual, expansion of tourism, both brought on by the establishment of national parks.

If the Government of Palau were to opt for the establishment of historical parks or natural area preserves, consideration should be given to the creation of an agency within the Executive Branch which would have direct responsibility for the preservation and administration of these areas for the benefit of the people of Palau.

Table J. Management Options to Protect Bliliou WWII Historic Sites, and a Portion of the Rock Islands

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