The Secret of the South Pacific: A Guide to Palau

Diving into Jellyfish Lake
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After coming to Palau, swimming with dolphins will seem as exciting as diving in a two-foot bathtub, especially after you swim with the Rock Island's jellyfish.
The limestone islands that make up Palau were formed by millions of years of coral accretion, slowly lifted from the sea. The porous limestone is riddled with cracks and tunnels, forever connecting the land to the sea, and creating some 70 saltwater lakes that have no surface connection to the sea, but whose waters rise and fall with the ocean tides as they percolate through the rock.

These unique closed habitats allow small sea creatures to flourish without fear of predators from the open ocean—a phenomenon that has some wonderfully evolutionary consequences. Perhaps the oddest of them all is Jellyfish Lake, home to 1.2 million jellyfish that have lost their ability to sting. As a result, it's possible for adventurous snorkelers to swim safely among them and touch these ephemeral creatures as they drift by the thousands near the surface.
Actually, there are several so-called jellyfish lakes in the Rock Islands, but only the one on the uninhabited island of Macharchar is accessible to the public. (The location of the others is known to only a few people, who tend to be very tight-lipped on the matter.) The lakes were unknown to outsiders until the 1980s, and the one now visited by snorkelers first received wide public attention from a National Geographic TV special. Surrounded by steep jungled slopes, it's accessible via a 10-minute walk along a rocky path from a permanent dock.
For those of us whose only jellyfish sightings are those that have washed up on shore, it's a revelation to realize that jellyfish, in their natural habitat, are not flat and pancake-like, but globular, like small planets drifting through space. The Jellyfish Lake variety, ranging from marble- to volleyball-sized, gently pulsate as they drift through the calm waters of the lake. During the day, they collect in great swarms near the surface to allow their built-in algae to soak up the rays of the sun—their only form of nourishment. At night they retreat to the lower depths, where the water is rich in the nitrogen necessary for algae growth.
The regular daytime swarming near the surface virtually assures snorkelers an extraordinary experience. Upon swimming a few hundred feet out from a wooden platform at the end of the trail, you are enveloped by thousands of jellyfish. The water is very deep at this point, and the translucent orange globules, brilliantly lit by the sun and drifting against a featureless dark blue background, are reminiscent of every space movie you've ever seen—a universe of globular orbs drifting in the void of the cosmos. The visual effect is at once hypnotic and hallucinatory; you'll feel more space-walker than snorkeler.
To avoid damaging the delicate creatures, snorkelers must drift or swim very gently. When a jellyfish first bumps unexpectedly against your chest or leg it's hard to avoid that reflexive twitch, but after a while you'll become accustomed to their gentle touch, which feels like an encounter with a slightly gelatinous water balloon.
Practically Speaking
Palau, about halfway between New Guinea and the Phillipines, is a two-hour jet flight from Guam, which is itself eight hours from Honolulu. Continental has daily flights. The capital city of Koror has a number of dive shops and tour boat operators who can take you to Jellyfish Lake, a well-known tourist destination. Wilderness Travel (800-368-2794, www.wildernesstravel.com) runs an 11-day sea kayaking trip in Palau that includes a snorkling visit to Jellyfish lake. Or try Sam's Tours (samstour@palaunet.com; 011-680-488-1471).
In addition to Jellyfish Lake, Palau has a number of other attractions. It's generally considered one of the two or three best scuba-diving and snorkeling destinations in the world, and the sea kayaking among the Rock Islands is superb. There is also a wealth of World War II ruins and relics, especially on the island of Peleliu, site of a bloody two-month siege by U.S. Marines in 1944.


David Noland is a full-time professional freelance writer specializing in adventure travel, sports, and science. His book, Travels Along the Edge , published in 1997 by Vintage Books, is now in its fourth printing.

Published: 7 Jun 2001 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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