As part of a Bing Overseas Studies Program seminar, "Corals of Palau: Ecology, the Physical Environment and Reefs at Risk," the students learned how coral reefs – massively intricate webs of life – function, developed field skills to study reefs and studied the nature of threats to reefs worldwide. Along the way, the students swam with thousands of jellyfish in a lake, kayaked around waterfalls and met with the island republic’s president and attorney general to discuss climate change impacts on the low-lying nation and potential policy and management solutions.

The people of Palau have many words for the sea and its conditions. Their lives are intimately connected with the ocean and the coral reefs – some of the world’s most vibrant – all around them.

“We weren’t just looking at the pretty fish,” said rising senior Caroline Ferguson, a human biology major. “We learned about the ecology of the reef, the reef’s significance to the people of Palau and measures Palau has taken to protect the reefs for all their benefits.”

The three-week course was taught by environmental earth system science Professor Rob Dunbar, civil and environmental engineering Professor Stephen Monismith and law Professor Meg Caldwell. Dunbar and Monismith are senior fellows at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, and Caldwell is a senior lecturer at Woods. The three professors helped students work on projects ranging from measuring carbon in coral core samples to tracking water temperature circulations.

Some of the research may be publishable in academic journals, according to Monismith. “This is all stuff they did in just a few days,” he said.

“I think what made it really work was the fact that we were in the water every day and saw a great diversity of reef types, mostly healthy but some with problems brought on by human impacts,” Dunbar said. “I hope it changed our students and how they think about marine conservation. I know the experience changed me.”

Beyond corals, students learned about Palau’s challenges with development, enforcement of commercial fishing regulations, drinking water and sanitation, among other issues facing the country’s 21,000 inhabitants. Palau has only one patrol boat to monitor all of its waters. The country is considering whether to outlaw all commercial fishing in its waters and boosting tourism substantially. “It’s a time of change for them,” Monismith said.

See the slide show below featuring photos by Rob Dunbar and Stephen Monismith.