Part 1: Natural Wonders You Never Knew Existed (…and they’re all in Palau!)

We’re hearing all kinds of rumors about Blood Moons and other newsworthy natural phenomena. I thought it appropriate, then, to share a few of the wilder natural wonders we’ve experienced in Palau, which is full of them (this place wasn’t named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for nothin’). This is Part 1 of a 2-part series…or more, depending on how much the upcoming rainy season puts a damper on our adventuring. For now, when we’re not on the clock, you can find us in…

1. The Rock Islands

There’s something about the Rock Islands that really awakens the inner second grader, the one who wanted to grow up to be a marine biologist and a paleontologist, scanning reefs for shipwrecks and caves for old bones. (With Palau’s World War II history, and with the discovery of supposed ancient cave-dwelling “Hobbit people,” discovering old bones in caves is also something we do on occasion in the Rock Islands.)

As Tufts alumni, we are partial to this one. Go Jumbos!

As Tufts alumni, we are partial to this one. Go Jumbos!

 

Only nine of Palau’s islands are inhabited, but the country is made up of over 250 limestone and coral islands spread across 400 miles of Pacific Ocean. Millennia ago, the Rock Islands were submerged coral reefs formed on the tops of underwater volcanoes. Now, these ancient reefs are uplifted, mushrooming out of the sea in great green mounds: statuesque bodies of rock and jungle foliage in all shapes and sizes. Due to wave erosion and the porous nature of the rock, the islands are cut away at the base, so that from a distance they appear to be hovering, magically suspended above the surface of the water. Through fog, they look like sleeping elephants or brontosaurus, prehistoric giants about to rise up and roar.

An outer reef surrounds this area of Palau, so the water throughout much of the Rock Islands remains protected, radiant turquoise blue and calm. You can kayak or snorkel, hang beneath the lip of the rocks for shade—a great place to examine coral and take in a hundred varieties of palm, white rur and elilai flowers, tropic birds and fruit bats sailing overhead. If you’re into that sort of thing. Which I am.

Anna kayaking in the Rock Islands

Anna kayaking in the Rock Islands

 

2.  Jellyfish Lake

From Koror, it’s a 40-minute boat ride through the Rock Islands to Mercherchar Island, where you dock, hike over a steep hill, don your mask and snorkel, and immerse yourself in a marine lake full of five million stingless jellyfish—transparent, golden pink globes in every size, some as big as grapefruit, some smaller than a baby’s fingernail, so tiny you can barely see them, and they’re all pulsing and pitching around you in the rhythm of heartbeats, bumping into one another and moving on, feeding on light.

Jellyfish Lake, taken by our friend Joey, December 2013

Jellyfish Lake, taken by our friend Joey, December 2013

If you’ve ever been to an ocean beach, you’ve learned to beware of jellyfish. But this is one of few places in the world where you can ignore that rule, a place where sea levels rose as high as the islands themselves and then receded, forming marine lakes, briny inland environments in which a few oceanic species (namely, jellyfish) remained, predator-free. Sea anemones around the lake’s perimeter provide a degree of population control, and with hundreds of visitors daily during high season, human impact is inevitable. But without a direct threat to their survival, these jellies evolved without strong stinging defenses. Instead, they float innocuously, shifting en masse from east to west with the passage of the sun.

I had my doubts about Jellyfish Lake, one of Palau’s hyped visitor destinations. (In an attempt to deter crowds, Koror State jacked Jellyfish Lake visitor permits to $100 a pop–it’s free for Palauans and “locals” like us, with work permits. So far, the fee has primarily meant income generation for the state.) But if you catch it at the right time, communing with the jellies is equal parts thrilling and serene—you imagine yourself floating through a kaleidoscope, a sky of peachy clouds, a galaxy of pink stars…

Brian gets comfortable with the jellyfish

Brian gets comfortable with the jellyfish

 

If you catch it at the wrong time, then a rowdy tour group starts squealing, slicing the water with kicking fins, and the beheaded remains of jellyfish float past–limp arms, a silent bell. It reminds me of a visit to Machu Picchu, which was magnificent and peaceful at sunrise, but by 11 a.m., a man was shouting into his cell phone, shaking it at the sky for service, and a bunch of teenagers were climbing the ruins behind a “Do Not Touch” sign. Sigh. That’s the thing about natural wonders: they are incredibly attractive to humans.

I can’t stream this video from The Guardian, but the first-worlders among you can visit the lake vicariously here.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Glow-in-the-dark swimming, fastidious fish, and underwater things that go bump in the night…

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7 thoughts on “Part 1: Natural Wonders You Never Knew Existed (…and they’re all in Palau!)

  1. Anna, and Brian,

    I wanted to let you know, finally, that I soak up your every update like a sponge! I miss you, and love love love picturing you on this wild ride. I love the jellyfish. I am unashamedly ichthyophobic and would no doubt have some barriers in this new life of yours, but I have always been unwillingly intrigued by jellyfish. Thank you for this snippet, for your photo documentary style and the images of you and Brian mingling with the jellies.

    Meanwhile, back home, things are mostly just routine. I just acquired a breastfeeding lamb toy where mini lambs magnetically attach to the mama sheep magnetic teats. You know, your run of the mill birth center stuff.

    Life if wondrous, as always, I love being completely out of academia, and engrossed in the community again!

    But I miss you both.
    xooxoxxx
    jane

    • Oh, Jane! We miss you, too! Thanks for the update–the thought of you and your magnetic breastfeeding sheep magnets makes my day. So looking forward to catching up with you guys when we’re back in Washington. Until then, glad to hear life post grad school is going so swimmingly. Hugs to Joe, Jim, Mary and the rest of the Spokane crew! xoxo

  2. Thank you for another wonderful post, Anna. Your Dad still talks, animatedly and with awe, about his trip to Jellyfish Lake with you two. And we both chatter on and on about the Rock Islands… kayaking and foraging for coconuts at “Bethye’s Beach”. What fantastic memories we retain! So glad you are having such a fabulous adventure there. We miss you, though, and look forward to seeing you at the “beach” here at Sugar Camp Lake!

  3. Wow. Thanks Anna. Looking forward to number two. Are those moon Jellies? In the Florida keys comb jellies are stingless, and we swam with a lot of them. But moon Jellies are the stingers. -Tim

    • I hear moon jellies existed in the lake until about 5 years ago, then had a population crash. They had a very mild sting–people still swam with them. If you want to get all scientific about it (and I know you do), the golden jellies are a subspecies of Mastigias papua–spotted jellyfish–which you’ll find in lagoon water around the Rock Islands and the Indo-Pacific, and which definitely sting. We saw one kayaking a few months ago, and you could tell it was a relative of the Jellyfish Lake variety. But all of the subspecies in the marine lakes around here are unique at this point. So cool you guys got to experience this in Florida. Can’t wait to hear all about your trip! xoxo

  4. Pingback: Part 2: Natural Wonders You Never Knew Existed (…and they’re all in Palau!) | The Coconut Wireless

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