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Engulfed by Beating Hearts on an Uninhabited Island


A lake full of beating hearts. Copyright: Jennifer Hile.

The jellyfish enveloped me like a cloud. I couldn't move without touching them – they bumped into my hands, feet, thighs, and stomach. Jellyfish don't have eyes and sense only the most basic elements of light and dark, which means they use a percussive style of navigation – when they bump into something, they head in the opposite direction. Luckily, these jellies couldn't sting.

I was in the middle of Jellyfish Lake on one of the uninhabited Rock Islands of Palau. It's a peculiar salt-water lake where jellyfish live without predators and have lost the ability to sting. My Palauan guide had assured me and a friend, Tracey Lovejoy, that this lake was chock full of a "million" jellyfish when we kayaked out to it earlier that morning. I had smiled, assuming I'd probably see quite a few lurking along the bottom and edges. I had no idea.

The white sand beach of one of Palau's uninhabited Rock Islands. Copyright: Tracey Lovejoy.When I arrived at this remote South Pacific archipelago, a string of over 400 islands, I'd never even heard of Jellyfish Lake. I was here for a week of open- ocean scuba diving. Three nutrient-rich currents converge at Palau, attracting every imaginable link in the food chain, tourists included. Sharks and barracudas, turtles, octopus and massive hordes of Technicolor tropical fish all thrive here among endless coral reefs. But much to my surprise, my most extravagant encounter happened inland.

Nothing I'd ever experienced prepared me for being completely engulfed by jellyfish. Everything I'd seen or read about jellies had left a residual fear of them; they weren't something I'd grown up wanting to play with. I kept waiting to bump into the one jellyfish that hadn't lost its ability to sting. I knew it was out there. I pulled away from contact with their cool, slick skins as if I'd been stung.

I finally got Tracey's attention, expecting her to share my borderline panic. She, however, could not have been more comfortable. While I'd been trying to minimize contact, she was laughing and playing with the jellies, lifting them up to see them in the sunlight, then gently easing them back into the lake. Inspired, I made up my mind that I too, would become "one" with the jellyfish and delicately rubbed up to the nearest translucent, ambulatory glob. I quickly began to enjoy the phantasmagoric swirl of bodies around me, relishing the opportunity to study their ethereal bodies.

Jungle-clad cliffs surround Jellyfish Lake, adding to its strange aura. Copyright: Tracey Lovejoy.There were two kinds of jellyfish: flesh-colored "goldens" that looked like beating hearts motoring around without a body, and "moon jellies," that were large, clear circles edged in purple. They moved like giant, swimming spider webs. Jellyfish are over 90 percent water – moving as gracefully, effortlessly as you'd expect of crystallized liquid. There were lots of baby goldens, maybe an inch across, pulsing around. They were perfect miniaturizations, dainty and fragile. I noticed that the jellies often crowded together, moving towards patches of sunlight on the surface of the lake. Turns out they were chasing the sun. These jellies ingest algae and then bask their translucent bodies in the light, allowing the algae to photosynthesize in their tissue; the resulting growth sustains them. At night they sink to the bottom of the lake to rest in the heavy, nitrogen-rich blackness.

Dusk was fast approaching and soon we had to kayak back to Palau's main island of Koror, where we were staying. The late afternoon sun was already dipping behind the high, sheer cliffs surrounding the lake; the dark green walls polka-dotted by white and green shrieking parrots (our guide was busy calculating how to catch one). Tracey and I were the only ones on the lake and we grudgingly waded out past the knurled mangrove roots that grow thick and snarled on the lake's bank, like gatekeepers. As we hiked out to our kayaks, leaving behind the thick, vibrant crowd of jellyfish, I suddenly felt lonely in the still, wide open, empty air.

The view from a kayak heading through the Rock Islands. Copyright: Jennifer Hile.

When You Go:

Getting there:

Continental Air Micronesia has daily flights to Palau's main island, Koror, from Guam, and weekly flights from Manila. Connections can easily be made from any North American or European cities by way of these two airports. Continental is the only airline that goes in.

Accomodations:

I recommend the D.W. Motel, tel. 488-2641, in Koror. All the rooms are clean, affordable and have air conditioning and hot showers; plus the airport shuttle is free. Ask for a room that has a refrigerator, which allows you to buy some snacks and breakfast foods at the grocery store down the street. The H.K. Motel (488-1725) near the Palau Visitors Authority is also clean and affordable, and there is a shared kitchen available for guests to use.

Activities:

For general tourism information, write to:
Palau Visitor's Authority
P.O. Box 256
Koror, PW 96940

Adventure Kayaking of Palau (488-1694) is the way to go for trips to Jellyfish Lake. I recommend Sam's Dive Shop (488-1062) to get certified in scuba diving, take guided scuba day trips, and all-day snorkeling trips. Fish n' Fins is another very experienced dive shop (488-2637).

There were lots of baby goldens, maybe an inch across, pulsing around. They were perfect miniaturizations, dainty and fragile. I noticed that the jellies often crowded together, moving towards patches of sunlight on the surface of the lake. Turns out they were chasing the sun. These jellies ingest algae and then bask their translucent bodies in the light, allowing the algae to photosynthesize in their tissue; the resulting growth sustains them. At night they sink to the bottom of the lake to rest in the heavy, nitrogen-rich blackness.

Dusk was fast approaching and soon we had to kayak back to Palau's main island of Koror, where we were staying. The late afternoon sun was already dipping behind the high, sheer cliffs surrounding the lake; the dark green walls polka-dotted by white and green shrieking parrots (our guide was busy calculating how to catch one). Tracey and I were the only ones on the lake and we grudgingly waded out past the knurled mangrove roots that grow thick and snarled on the lake's bank, like gatekeepers. As we hiked out to our kayaks, leaving behind the thick, vibrant crowd of jellyfish, I suddenly felt lonely in the still, wide open, empty air.

The view from a kayak heading through the Rock Islands. Copyright: Jennifer Hile.

When You Go:

Getting there:

Continental Air Micronesia has daily flights to Palau's main island, Koror, from Guam, and weekly flights from Manila. Connections can easily be made from any North American or European cities by way of these two airports. Continental is the only airline that goes in.

Accomodations:

I recommend the D.W. Motel, tel. 488-2641, in Koror. All the rooms are clean, affordable and have air conditioning and hot showers; plus the airport shuttle is free. Ask for a room that has a refrigerator, which allows you to buy some snacks and breakfast foods at the grocery store down the street. The H.K. Motel (488-1725) near the Palau Visitors Authority is also clean and affordable, and there is a shared kitchen available for guests to use.

Activities:

For general tourism information, write to:
Palau Visitor's Authority
P.O. Box 256
Koror, PW 96940

Adventure Kayaking of Palau (488-1694) is the way to go for trips to Jellyfish Lake. I recommend Sam's Dive Shop (488-1062) to get certified in scuba diving, take guided scuba day trips, and all-day snorkeling trips. Fish n' Fins is another very experienced dive shop (488-2637).