From the Field

The Traveling Naturalist: Swimming with Jellyfish in Palau

July 10, 2013

A swarm of golden jellyfish at Jellyfish Lake in Palau's Rock Islands. Photo © Ethan Daniels
A swarm of golden jellyfish at Jellyfish Lake in Palau's Rock Islands. Photo © Ethan Daniels

Palau is world-renowned for its incredible diving — it’s considered one of the 7 underwater wonders of the world. Divers come here to see colorful coral reefs and tropical fish, as well as the submerged relics of World Word II fighter planes and ships.

For the non-diver, there’s always snorkeling to see these same sights. And then there’s Jellyfish Lake, an experience not to be missed.

Jellyfish Lake is one of dozens of marine lakes in Palau. These marine lakes are essentially enclosed except for small tunnels and fissures flushed by the ocean tides, making the lakes saltwater. Jellyfish Lake is particularly unique because it is stratified — at the bottom is an anoxic layer (oxygen-less) that is life-threatening to people. But as long as you stay in the top 15 meters of oxygenated water, floating with the jellyfish is a safe and surreal experience.

Wait, you might be thinking — don’t jellyfish sting? As tourists are told, the jellyfish here don’t have stings powerful enough to harm people. Scientists believe that the isolated existence of these jellyfish led them to de-evolve their stinging cells in favor of a distinct migratory pattern that follows the path of the sun. By doing this they avoid the shadowy areas where their primary predators, anemones, live. Without a predator, their stinging cells became weak.

Jellyfish Lake
Jellyfish Lake is a draw for tourists eager to swim with millions of jellyfish. Photo by Ian Shive.

The entry fee to Jellyfish Lake is pretty steep — US $100 for a permit that includes Palau’s famous Rock Islands — as is the short terraced climb to get to the lake. But it’s well worth it.

Swimming away from the dock to the center of the lake, at first you see just a few jellyfish floating slowly upward towards you. As you arrive in the center where the sunlight is strongest, the water is suddenly pulsing with golden peach blobs — swarming at your fingertips, bopping into your fins and floating past your mask.

At first I found the experience of being surrounded by millions of jellyfish to be oddly claustrophobic. And, I have to admit, on my very first time out I had to swim quickly back toward the shadowy water by the dock. It was a flight-or-fight reaction, perhaps an innate fear of being outnumbered, even if by harmless jello-like creatures.

But I quickly got over it and headed back to the center of the lake, spending a serene hour communing with one of nature’s more unique creatures. If you’re ever traveling to Palau, be sure to include Jellyfish Lake in your destinations.

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