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Coral reef in Palau

Coral Reefs of Palau: Marine Environment, Ecology and Conservation

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Program Quick Facts

  • Location: Koror, Palau
  • Stanford Faculty Leaders: Rob Dunbar and Steve Monismith
  • BOSP Program Manager: Morgan Diamond [Email] [Schedule Appointment]
  • Program DatesJune 19 - July 11, 2022
  • Program Cost: $600 program fee; please visit the Overview page for complete information about the program fee structure and financial assistance
  • Academic Prerequisites: Students must complete a 1-unit preparatory seminar during the late Winter quarter/ late Spring quarter 2022. Instructors will work with accepted students to set accessible times for virtual and in-person participation. Students that are off-campus during Winter or Spring quarters can develop a plan with the instructors for asynchronous and/or virtual participation in this pre-sem.
  • Activity Level: Moderate/Strenuous. Participants should expect to spend multiple hours engaging in physical activity such as hiking or snorkeling. Some days might require more physical activity such as a full day of snorkeling or hiking on steep terrain.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Health Information for Travelers to Palau
  • US State Department Country Information: Palau International Travel Information
  • Visa Information: Embassy of the Republic of Palau
  • More Information: Learning Through Fieldwork on Pacific Coral Reefs (Stanford Report, 2018)
  • Application Deadline: Sunday, January 23, 2022 at 11:59pm PT

Students learn how coral reefs function, develop field skills to study reefs, and study the nature of threats to reefs worldwide.

General Description

This BOSP Short-Term Program is designed to teach students about coral reef ecology, coastal oceanography, and physics with a view towards understanding threats to coral reefs as well as management and policy issues in the western Pacific. Coral reefs are often called the “canary in the coal mine” of the coastal marine environment due to their sensitivity to a suite of anthropogenic impacts, including overfishing, pollution, acidification, and climate change. Overfishing and destructive fishing practices affect >60% of reefs globally, and coastal development and watershed-based pollution each impact >35% of reefs. Warming temperatures, changing ocean chemistry, and increased climatic variability, already affecting reefs in many areas, are projected to cause unprecedented future losses. Without conservation and management interventions in the near future, we risk the loss of one of the most vibrant, diverse, and important marine ecosystems. This topic, management of coral reefs for conservation as well as productivity, is the focal point for many research programs, including here at Stanford. It is also an effective and exciting theme for building an interdisciplinary field course designed to teach students about the basic sciences of ecology, biogeochemistry, and physics from the standpoint of marine environment science, as well as how science-based solutions and policy intersect to address global problems.

The program includes engagement with local Palauan students from the Palau Community College as well as many talented staff members from our host facility, the Palau International Coral Reef Center. These students and staff bring local knowledge on reef uses and the role of reefs in traditional culture that will help Stanford students more deeply understand current issues in environmental monitoring and management.

Fundamental learning goals include

  1. Acquisition of a field-based understanding of the complex array of organisms, structures, and physical and biological processes that constitute a healthy coral reef system.
  2. Develop quantitative observational field skills needed for measuring biological, physical, and chemical changes of a coral reef -- 2022 observations will build on observations made and analyzed by our 2013, 2015, 2017, and 2019 classes.
  3. Understand the nature of threats to Pacific coral reefs as well as additive effects and pathways by which reefs are stressed.
  4. Develop the capacity to understand, analyze, and compare a variety of proposed policy and management solutions as an exercise in systems analysis and sustainability science.​

This is a field-based program with extensive field work components on small boats and/or in the water. Students are introduced to coral reefs of Palau through a snorkel trip/water safety checkout swim during the first full course day on site. Additional field days are interspersed with classroom and lab lectures at the Palau International Coral Reef Center (PICRC). Field excursions include training and on-site discussions as well as 8 full days of student-designed small group research projects. Projects will be observational or experimental and will be supported with modern scientific sampling gear made available by the course instructors specifically for this course. All projects will be hypothesis driven and implemented through small group project-based learning techniques. One exciting element of this course is the work at the intersection of science, policy, and culture. Students will begin a dialogue with Palauan coral reef managers on the first day of the course. This is followed by a discussion with reef managers from the Palauan government as well as local NGOs such as the Nature Conservancy. Since Palau recently (January 2020) implemented a ban on all foreign commercial fishing in Palauan waters there is great interest in the impact of this step on coral reef health. We will set up at least one meeting between our students and national executive and legislative branch leaders to discuss the intent of the ban as well as its impacts (both expected and unanticipated). At the end of the course, all students will give an oral presentation of their research results and participate in a group discussion about what has been learned and how this might be applied to coral reef management, both locally and at other reef sites.

Program participants in 2017 collected coral samples and tested their heat resistance in specially designed stress tanks.


Palau is located within the “coral triangle,” a global hotspot in terms of reef biodiversity. Palau’s reefs are considered one of the “7 underwater wonders of the world” with >350 species of stony coral and more than 1300 species of reef fish (with a high level of endemism). Palau’s biodiversity has been formally assessed as part of the implementation of an innovative Protected Area Network (PAN) system. The reefs are unusually accessible to visitors given the nation’s geography, standard of living, and generally benign ocean environment. Our housing and local support facilities are all located in Koror, the principal city of Palau, located about 20 km SW of Ngerulmud, the nation’s capital. We will utilize the classroom and labs provided by Palau International Coral Reef Center as well as a variety of small to medium size boats for day trips in and around Koror, Babeldaob Island, the Rock Islands preserve.

Palau enjoys a pleasantly warm climate all year with an annual mean temperature of 27 degrees Celsius. Rainfall can occur throughout the year, and the annual average is just over 3.5 meters. The average relative humidity is 82%, and although rain falls more frequently between July and October, there is still much sunshine.

The resident population of Palau is approximately 21,000, of whom 70% are native Palauans, who are of mixed Melanesian, Micronesian, and Austronesian descent. Many Palauans also have some Asian ancestry, a result of intermarriage between settlers and Palauans in the 19th and 20th centuries. Palauans with mixed Japanese ancestry accounted for the largest group, and some also have Chinese or Korean ancestry. Non-citizen Filipinos form the second largest ethnic group residing in Palau.

The official languages of Palau are Palauan and English, except for two states (Sonsorol and Hatohobei) where a local language, along with Palauan, is official. Japanese is also spoken widely amongst older Palauans, and is an official language in the State of Angaur. Tagalog is not official in Palau, but it is the fourth largest spoken language.

Living and Travel Conditions

Students will share a dormitory-style room or equivalent through the program. Students should be prepared to sleep in bunk beds and share a common bathroom and have less privacy and personal space than they may be used to on our home campus. This program is strenuous. Students should expect to spend about 9 or 10 hours out in the field during which they may be in the water for up to 6 hours/day. Students must be able to swim and snorkel competently and safely for prolonged periods of time. Swimming ability will be tested prior to full acceptance into the course.

Internet and email access is widely available in Palau including at PICRC and in the student housing unit for a small fee. In addition, the Palau National Communications Corporation provides numerous WiFi Hotspots throughout Koror. Customers can access a PNCC WiFi Hotspot with a Prepaid Internet Card or a regular PalauNet dial-up subscription using a laptop computer, phone, or other device with WiFi capability.

Dinners will be prepared by local staff at a restaurant. Lunches will be served deli-style either in the field or at PICRC. Breakfasts will be a simple self-serve affair at the housing unit. Dietary selections may be limited so students with severe restrictions should carefully evaluate their ability to participate comfortably.

Other Considerations

Comprehensive training on water safety will be provided to students during the mandatory orientation sessions and also immediately prior to any water activities once we arrive onsite in Palau. We will employ a buddy system at all times during our field activities.

Palau is generally a safe country to visit. But as with any place in the world today, common sense must always be used. Pedestrians should be careful, as sidewalks are limited even in downtown Koror.

Hazards to participants in this program include exposure to the sun, heat, and a variety of marine organisms. Constant vigilance is required to avoid sunburn. All students must carry adequate sunscreen and drinking water during the program. Possible marine hazards include sharks and stinging sea creatures.

If you are uncomfortable traveling under such conditions, you should not apply to this program.


Program participants in 2017 observed coral recruits (coral babies) in different locations across the reefs of Palau.


Rob Dunbar 

is the W. M. Keck Professor of Earth Sciences and a faculty member within the department of Earth System Science at Stanford. Dunbar has held a Bass Undergraduate Teaching Fellowship for 13 years at Stanford (originally appointed as the Weintz Fellow in Undergraduate Education for 10 years). He directed the Stanford Earth Systems Program for 9 years and co-founded Stanford’s Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources which he led as Director for 4 years. Dunbar is interested in global climate change, and in particular how to separate man-induced climate changes from the large and dynamic variability that is simply part of how our planet works. He teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses in climate and global change, geochemistry, oceanography, marine geology, and paleoclimatology. Dunbar is particularly intrigued with teaching in the field and has taken over 400 Stanford students to remote locations such as Antarctica, Palau, Alaska, Patagonia, the Line Islands, Tahiti, Tonga, and Raratonga to participate in educational and research expeditions. His research group focuses on using isotopic and biogeochemical methods for measuring ocean processes and climate change at the poles, tropics, and within the deep ocean interior. Current field areas include the American Samoa, Antarctica, the Line Islands, Easter Island, Chile, Patagonian Argentina, Tierra del Fuego, and Palau. This is his 7th Bing Overseas Seminar offering.

Steve Monismith

is the Obayashi Professor in Marine Sciences. Prof. Monismith received his Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley in Engineering. He and his lab group study flows in lakes, estuaries, and the coastal ocean. Current projects include field and computational work on wave-driven flows over coral reefs, transport in a small estuary/wetland complex, wind-waves in shallow estuaries, benthic grazing on coral reefs and in estuaries, internal waves and mixing in the Florida Keys, circulation and zooplankton retention in the St. Lawrence estuary, mixed layer dynamics and circulation in the Gulf of Aqaba, as well as lab and computational studies of flows through coral colonies and kelp forests. He especially values field sites that are attractive (e.g., have good diving prospects) and have good restaurants. He is also involved with various scientific panels focusing on the San Francisco Bay/Delta including the IEP Science advisor group (which he chairs) and various CALFED advisory panels and groups/.

Prerequisites and Expectations

This program is intended for students with some background in the sciences, although not necessarily advanced knowledge. Since swimming and snorkeling are required parts of the program activities and are also needed in an emergency, the ability to swim and snorkel competently for an extended period is a requirement to participate in the program. All accepted and waitlisted students must have their swimming skills evaluated by Stanford Recreation. The swim test will consist of the following: tread water for 10 minutes, swim 100 yards and retrieve a 10 lb brick from the bottom of the pool.

A small group (2 to 3 individuals working together with significant guidance from faculty and TAs) research project involving field and lab work will comprise a significant portion of the course. Students must be able to work productively, efficiently, and congenially in a small group setting. The scope of the projects as well as examples will be discussed during a second mandatory orientation session to be held during the Spring quarter, 2019.

Students must complete a 1-unit preparatory seminar during the latter half of both the Winter (so that we know who has been admitted) and Spring (leading up to departure) quarters 2022. The 1-unit registration signup should be for the Spring quarter. During the pre-sem, instructors will provide background material on Palau reefs. We will also begin the ideation process for student projects so that we can ensure the availability of equipment logistical support that may be needed.

Grading Basis

Letter grade