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20 March 2014

Jellyfish lake fun



Palau is one of the smallest countries in the world with only 20,000 inhabitants and one of the newest. The country did not exist until 1994 when it achieved independence from the US and it does feel a lot like being in Hawaii in the 60s, as if time stood still. 

This is because it is a very isolated and hard to reach place so, although it is a relatively developed country product of being a US territory for long, a lot of the cars, urban architecture and look&feel gives it an old-fashioned character.

Jellyfish lake is around 45min by boat from Koror, the capital, and it is an incredible natural phenomenon like many other in that part of the world. Because of a combination of ecological and marine conditions the lake is home to millions of non-dangerous golden jellyfish which can be caressed and played with on a snorkeling trip.

Under the surface, the lake hides a real natural mystery. It is composed of two stratified non-mixing layers of water. At the top, the first 15m are made of oxygenated water. The lower layer is devout of oxygen and there is virtually no life. This is one of the reasons diving in the lake is forbidden. Aside from the lack of oxygen the lower layer is also filled with ammonia and phosphate which are toxic to divers who can get poisoned through the skin.

Jellyfish Lake aerial view

On a regular day in the low season the entire park of hotels in Koror is almost fully booked. Tour operators from Korea and Japan charter planes to take tourists to Palau where they can enjoy a host of natural wonders and great beaches. 

On our day tour to Jellyfish Lake it was filled with Korean and Japanese fully geared groups. Tour operators are clearly segmented by nationality, food type and language. We were on the group with an American tour operator (Fish n Fins) and aside from our sandwich instead of a bento box their rules and explanations were also of a different kind. We were told a bit more of the history of the area and assured salt water crocodiles did not swim around. However, there was little being said about the stratification of the lake or the fact that it is around 12,000 years old. Reading about it later I found out the reason why diving is not allowed and realized that the population of golden jellyfish died out completely as a result of El Nino and the increase in temperatures it brought about. Luckily, the numbers were restored to pre decline level around 2012.

The experience is filled with laughter and fun. After a quick walk up and down a steep hill through the forest you reach a deck, from there you get suited up with snorkeling equipment and jump in. We swam for a little while into the lake until the density of jellyfish was noticeable. The jellyfish move around the lake eevryday following the sunlight. Playing with these little animals may seem cruel yet it is quite fun. You can touch them and dance with them under the water knowing that their stings are too weak to harm humans. This species is also much smaller than the ones you find at sea and with the mask and snorkel you can get face-to-face with them. To have an idea of what it feels like have a look at this video 


The details


How to get there 


Where is Palau
You will need to get signed up for a Rock Islands full day tour which will include other sights and give you a chance to visit Jellyfish lake too. The msot common tour operators to book with if you are not Korean or Japanse are Fish' n' Fins or Sam's Tours both of which offer English speaking tour. 
If you are spending time in Palau as part of a live aboard diving tour check with the organizer whether a visit to the Lake is included, it is well worth it! 
Getting to Palau is relatively easy if you fly via Taipei with Far Eastern Air Transport or via Honolulu, Guam or Manila (3-4h) with Continental. I found the Manila route (unless you come from the US) the most convenient to make the most of a long weekend as flights depart late Friday night and return Tuesday night.

Best time to visit


Palau enjoys tropical weather but beware of the rainy season when doing much becomes a real hassle. The issue is not so much the rain on its own but the lack of activities if the weather is not good. The driest months are February and March and you should at all costs avoid the wet season of June-August when the country gets ocassionally hit by typhons

Where to stay


There are limited options to stay. We booked early but even then the majority of the places were full. The best place to stay is Palau Pacific Resort  which has both pool and beach and is possibly the only one. It also has a diving center and night shows of local culture - que touristy thing though entertaining. If that one is full the next best option is Palau Royal Resort. Finally, you could also stay at Cliffside Hotel

How to get around


We rented a car and it was possibly the best decision. Getting taxis is difficult as they need to be called and you can hardly flag one down the street and distances are big around Koror so you can't walk

Map of Palau Islands

What to do


Palau has a lot of points of interest. Aside from the Rock Islands which deserve an entire day of touring around, there are also other sights in the mainland or neighbouring islands. You can check my other post on the Rock Islands tour we did . If it rains you are a bit stuck but can always visit the Aquarium or drive around for a bit until it stops. The list of activities goes on and on and covers al sorts of water-based sports from surfing to of course, diving and snorkeling which are world class. I highly recommend diving and kayaking around the Rock Islands. we had a really good time getting through all the beautiful caves, pools, limestone passages and swimming in shallow waters. Some of the natural shallow pools are breeding areas for sharks so expect to see the little ones swimming about. Another recommended trip is a land-based exploration of monoliths and stone faces that can be found in Babeldaob. And if you like to hear about one of the bloodiest battles of WWII head to Peleliu Island, 30 nautical miles from Koror (read more here) - the tours with Peleliu Adventures are going to leave a mark.

Practicalities


  1. Palau is a tropical island and so the weather can be unpredictable. We landed in the middle of the night and were staying at a small lodge with tarpaulin roof - we did not manage to sleep for a minute with the thundering storm beating the roof with inesant and unbearable noise. Choose your accommodation wisely
  2. Go diving, you will not regret it and you will not forget it. Live aboard might be the best option
  3. Rent a car, it is essential
  4. The food is a combination of Pacific, Hawaian and American with an Asian influence, enjoy it to its maximum. Fresh mahi-mahi (it is an island after all!) marinated in lemon and fresh tuna are delicious
  5. Choose the tour operator that best suits your needs. If you are not Korean or Japanese stick to the English speaking ones. And bombard them with questions. The guide we had did not share with us most of the history or anecdotes of the places we visited which was a pity 
  6. Bring US dollar, being American territory until 20 years ago the currency has remained the greenback