Dream destinations for aquarists: Palau

The jellyfish lake in Palau - 12,000 km flight for a few slimy creatures

If I hadn't received an invitation from the Micronesian island nation to do a nature documentary, I probably would never have got there. Divers from all over the world visit Palau to see its famous dive site "Blue Corner", glimpse a nautilus in the sea or even to watch mandarin fish mating. But honestly, the marketing for Palau is far better than the dive sites themselves. At the "Blue Corner", for example, you as a diver get to hang on to a rock with a hook and dangle in a really strong current on a reef edge where some reef sharks are patrolling. And that’s it. Somehow UNDER water I couldn’t find a single reason why I should advise anyone to make the 12,000 km journey.

But OVER water, Palau is simply a dream! The 500 little islands that were once a coral reef before they were lifted out of the sea blow you away. If we were to make ourselves a little South Seas paradise, it would look like Palau. You can rent kayaks, cruise between the islands and enjoy the crystal-clear seawater. The Palau archipelago, with over 500 islands and 17,000 inhabitants, is part of Micronesia and lies in the middle of the Pacific Ocean between Papua New Guinea and Japan, east of the Philippines.

The real sensation on the island of Eil Malk

Hidden in the jungle is the Jellyfish Lake/Ongeim'l Tketau. 12,000 years ago, seawater flooded this area of the island and over time the lake became separated from the sea. Rainwater and an inflow lowered the salinity in the upper water layer (freshwater is lighter than seawater) to between 19.6 and 26 ‰. To this day the water layers haven’t mixed and the jellyfish have multiplied to circa an amazing 1.5 million medusae. At the same time, they have lost their ability to sting and have since been feeding on the endosymbiotic algae (zooxanthellae) in their tissues. They avoid shaded areas and the shore of the lake because that is where the imported jellyfish-eating anemones (Entacmaea medusivora) live.

You can reach the island of Eil Malk by boat from the capital Koror in about 45 minutes. As the trip passes between the beautiful islands, the journey time flies by. Then we walk through the tropical rainforest of the island to the lake. There is a jetty there so that we snorkellers - diving is forbidden - do not destroy the shore vegetation. Before I go into the water, I have to disinfect my feet in a tub, because imported animals are the biggest threat to this endangered paradise!

A wall of jellyfish

Curious, I look out from the jetty onto the lake, which is about 400 m long and 200 m wide, to see the jellyfish. But I can only make out a few jellyfish in the shallows. Where are they all? I'm disappointed at first! But then I remember that the jellyfish need the light for photosynthesis and I climb into the water to snorkel across the lake to the sunlit areas. Lo and behold, suddenly I find myself facing a wall of jellyfish! Unbelievable - I haven't seen so many jellyfish even in the "jellyfish years" in the Baltic Sea! Carefully, because who knows if the internet is right about not being stung, I touch a jellyfish. You can even touch jellyfish with the strongest nettle venom on their bell. But we can touch the tentacles of these freshwater jellyfish without receiving a venomous sting. I remember an incident in the Canary Islands where a Portuguese Galley (a strongly stinging colonial jellyfish organism), with over 1000 stinging cells per centimetre on its metre-long tentacles, lashed out so badly that a swimmer drowned from cramps and searing pain. But in the midst of these harmless sun worshippers, I am safe. I enjoy swimming among the thousands of slimy creatures and dive down to take photos of the jellyfish against the sun. From a few metres down, the whole thing looks even more impressive! I feel like the spaceship Enterprise among millions of planets. The 12,000 kilometre journey was worth it! Something like this looks absolutely surreal and can't be compared to anything on our beautiful planet! I take photo after photo to capture the atmosphere. But honestly - I don't manage it. You just see jellyfish in the pictures. I can't really convey the fascination of the moment between these animals...

The facts about the jellyfish of Palau

  • Mastigias papua, a scyphozoan jellyfish species
  • At times up to 30 million jellyfish in the lake, but mostly only 1.5 million
  • Jellyfish originated 12,000 years ago
  • Closely related jellyfish species have also been found in other lakes of Palau and other Pacific islands. However, they differ morphologically, genetically and behaviourally.
  • In 2005 Dawson determined the subspecies found in Ongeim'l Tketau as Mastigias cf. papua ssp. Etpisoni.
  • Maximum size: 23 cm.
  • In the morning, the medusae migrate from the western to the eastern part of the lake.
  • In the afternoon they start to migrate back again.

Travel tips

Ideally, you should combine a visit to Palau with a stay in Asia. There are direct flights from Taiwan and the Philippines to Koror, the capital of Palau (just under €400). Flights from Germany start at around €1000 with China Airlines via Taiwan. The ideal time to travel: November to April because of the monsoon between May and November. Hotels are not that cheap and start at around €120 per night. Food and eating out is not cheap. A small rental car is available for US$50. German citizens are allowed visa-free entry for 30 days. Visiting the Jellyfish Lake is not free of charge and you will have to pay around US$100 for arrival, departure and “entrance" fees.

© 12.06.2022

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Heiko Blessin
Heiko Blessin
Dipl.-Biologe

Tauchen, Fotografie, Aquaristik, Haie, Motorrad

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