Koror — There cannot be many places like Helen Reef left in this world — a
place remote but accessible, inhabited but not spoiled, wild but not hostile. Memories and impressions compete.
There are the thousands of seabirds whose cries fill the air as you approach, wheeling and diving above you. There are the gentle waves lapping on the sandy shore of this low lying island with its scattering of huts and accommodations. And there is the bioluminescense sparkling in the boats wake as we return from fishing at night under a sky whose stars pierced the full moon shadows…
It’s taken a week to get my head around this fantastic trip. The journey on Palau Sport takes approximately 36 hours from Koror but on the way we went by the island of Merir, where one man lives by his own choice, with an entire island and reef from which to gather food. He came out to meet us in his boat and exchange goods.
By contrast, arriving at Tobi island reveals plentiful signs of civilization. There’s a population of around 30, a school, agriculture, happy children playing along the main road, merely a grass covered path running along the beach front. The houses are fed electricity via photovoltaic panels and clean water from catchment tanks.
The fish are fresh, the bananas sweet, coconuts large and plentiful. The chickens and pigs go about their business and the wind blows. It’s peaceful and serene.
A few hours away is Helen Reef, a huge atoll of nearly 100 square miles. Nestled within it like a tiny seed is Helen Island, a sliver of sand, sparsely vegetated but which a whole host of wildlife call home. Together with the nesting turtles and seabirds live five Rangers. They watch over the reef against illegal fishing and now, as the world gets to hear about this magical place, the occasional yacht or liveaboard. These tourists arrive not only to experience the island with its birdlife but also the huge atoll reef.
The waters inside are calm and pockmarked with incredible coral reefs, huge and fragile. Dolphins cruise lazily by, stingrays in huge numbers and variety
stir up the sand looking for food. There are tales of tiger sharks and huge schools of fish.
The entire atoll is a PAN site, that is, it’s part of the Protected Areas Network of Palau. This legal protection has gifted this jewel of a reef with almost near perfection. Its ecology is as close to what it should be as you can find, certainly in Palau and much of the world.
The sheer biological productivity that arises when you protect a reef from commercial fishing and over harvesting is astounding. There were more reef fish per cubic meter of water at Helen Reef than I’ve ever seen before in 20-plus years of diving and the corals are huge and intact.
It is as close to pristine as any place I’ve ever seen. The drift in the main channel reminded of Cozumel’s Palancar Reef, a place that Jacques Cousteau heaped praise upon. He would have loved it here too.
The activity on the reefs is only matched by the vast number of birds that nest on Helen Island, overwhelming the senses.Their cries assault your ears somewhere between a cacophony and the largest choir you could imagine and it lasts without pause for something like 22 hours a day. After a while it actually becomes a very reassuring background. The pungent smell of guano is also not a wholly unpleasant aroma but certainly hits the olfactory nail on the head with a large hammer when you first arrive.
Most astonishing though is the tameness of the birds. They do not seem to fear people at all, quite the opposite. They will sit on their nests made seemingly from nothing but scraps of vegetation adhered with excretia and contemplate you as you contemplate them with less than half a meter between you both. If they do take off they join what must be 10,000 other birds who for all their tameness still like to practice some aerial bombardment on the gawping visitors. (Hint: keep your mouth closed) This audio, visual and nasal assault together with the huge numbers of eggs and chicks is testament to the absolutely astonishing productivity of this reef.
It was sad to leave after only just scratching the surface of what must be one of the most exciting places to explore in the world. Helen Reef is a place that robs you of superlatives. After spending only two days there. I can only imagine what a week or ten day trip here and through the other southwest islands of Palau would do for my vocabulary and fond memories of nature at its best.
Richard Brooks owns Lightning Strike Production, which covers everything from underwater to aerials. See his work at www.lightningstrikeproductions.co.uk