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New Colombo Plan

Australian students learn critical conservation skills in Palau’s world-first shark sanctuary

For 15 Flinders University students, studying marine biology, animal behaviour, and biodiversity and conservation, the chance to learn critical scientific skills in Palau through a New Colombo Plan mobility project has nurtured a renewed enthusiasm for their research and their future careers.

Final year marine biology student Bradley Hayman says he is grateful for the NCP experience, which allowed him to learn about the marine environment and conservation in the field.

Palau is renowned for its world-class approach to marine conservation and sustainability.

'Palau has a thriving, intact, tropical ecosystem, quite different from the Australian marine environment and one that the Palauan people are determined to conserve,' Bradley says.

'About 80 per cent of their waters are closed, they have been declared 'no take' zones for fishing because Palau truly values its ocean ecosystem.'

'Palau also created the world's first shark sanctuary. The country is taking an internationally recognised role in marine conservation and striving for important goals because the ocean is such a natural treasure to the Palauan people.'

'We had the chance to talk to people involved in coral restoration and clam protection and to see a lot of work going on to preserve the ocean environment at all levels,' he said.

9 people scuba diving.
NCP mobility participants dove into Palau's ocean-dependent culture for two weeks, learning about marine conservation efforts.

Fellow student Chloe Paterson believes her learning over the two-week intensive program has surpassed any regular classroom experience.

'Being exposed to hands-on learning was so good because we could use the skillsets that we knew in theory but had never applied in this habitat before,' Chloe said.

'There was the discipline of an everyday work ethic – going out diving, using techniques to identify and count fish species – it improved our skills tremendously'.

'It is the kind of experience that is not easy to get and makes us much more employable in the field'.

'I also learnt so much about research methods, the design of research projects and about collaboration'.

Both Chloe and Bradley say while much of the trip focused on practical learning through fieldwork in the tropical waters of the region, 'land days' brought deeper opportunities to engage with Palauan culture and history.

'The people in Palau are lovely and welcoming and getting a sense of their history and culture – from the impact of World War II, to stopping off at the little island microbusinesses established by locals along the coast – was a real privilege,' Bradley said.

'What is enduring is the Palauan culture, their connection to nature and their own creation stories.'

'Respect for the life of the ocean is woven into that culture and fish and sharks are important symbols in their spiritual traditions.'

13 people standing in a semicircle talking to a local professional.
While much of the trip focused on fieldwork in the tropical waters, ‘land days’ brought deeper opportunities to engage with Palauan culture and history.

For Chloe, visiting local high schools where there was an opportunity to teach but also learn from local students was a highlight.

'Our visits to schools where children are so knowledgeable about their environment because teaching them about nature is really valued,' Chloe said.

'They are so aware that the ocean sustains them and that it is vital that they care for and protect their resources.'

She says there has been a purposeful education campaign for new generations, which has been operating in schools for the past 15 years.

'In response to the threat of climate change, Palau is driving a lot of change for the whole region,' Chloe said.

The group also had the opportunity to interact with two research agencies and foundations while in Palau and spent time talking to local professionals working in research, education, and eco-tourism.

'I think the whole experience allowed us to consider how we will use our qualifications in the future, and it gave us a sense that there are a range of options from research, right through to education and tourism,' Bradley said.

'We left with an understanding of how important it is to protect what is a beautiful and complex tropical ecosystem'.

8 students sitting in a boat on the ocean with island in the back ground
NCP mobility participants got a firsthand look at how Palau's innovative policies are protecting their unique marine environment.

Both Bradley and Chloe believe the trip made a significant contribution to their marine science education and one which many of the students would not have had access to without the NCP.

'I know every one of us would want to acknowledge the benefits of opening the door to this unique experience, so perfectly matched to our studies, and one that has transformed the way we see our region and our own career potential,' Chloe said.

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