Approximately five million jellyfish live in Ongeim’l Tketau—give or take a hundred thousand.
This South Pacific city of Cnidarians only came to the world’s attention in 1982, thanks to an article in National Geographic Magazine that detailed Palau’s endemic jellyfish species, Mastigias papua etpisoni, found only in this single marine lake and nowhere else in the world.
The Island of Mecherchar is a 20-minute boat ride through the emerald isles of Palau. Simply named the “Rock Islands” for their limestone foundation, they are so much more in real life—glorious, kelly green blobs dropped onto a turquoise stained-glass sea, unmarked by human habitation of any sort.
Speeding through these watery channels, the warm wind whipping my hair, I felt the full force of Palau’s natural perfection—the sun, the sea, the spitting rain that came and went, and the immense coral reefs below us. It felt as if we had landed in the most natural part of Earth, a seafaring Eden that moved with life at every level.
The jellyfish themselves move all day long, chasing the sun like devoted followers.
From sunrise until noon, the jellyfish move east, and after twelve noon, they move west—until sunset, back and forth everyday, rotating, spinning and pulsing towards the sun. Craving the sunlight, the jellyfish can swim up to 1 km a day, aiding in photosynthesis for the zooxanthellae algae that live inside the jellyfish tissue. In return, the algae release complex sugars produced by photosynthesis, which the jellyfish survive on.
To read about this unique form of symbiosis between jellyfish and algae is one thing, but to leap face first into a pool of rose-tinged jellyfish is quite another. National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and Oceanographer Sylvia Earle urged us not to touch the jellyfish if we can help it—they are fragile, and they can sting.
Contrary to tourist myth, the jellyfish are not “non-stinging”; rather, the lack of natural predators in this marine lake (inside an island, inside an ocean) has led them to evolve away from having very strong stinging cells, so that most of us can glide through the water, bumping into the floating, dancing clear blobs without any pain.
“They can still sting you, though,” revealed our guide, Dale. “So watch out for the sensitive parts of your body—like, don’t go kissing the jellyfish!”
I think it’s the best advice I’ve ever received as a traveler—Kissing jellyfish is a bad idea, kids.
Following Sylvia through the lake, I made my best effort in deflecting a few million jellyfish from my face, but some still got through—especially the baby medusas, some of them no bigger than the fingernail of my pinky.
Though I was floating among countless numbers, I was most enchanted by one of the teensiest glassy blobs, bobbing along in the water—a baby medusa, rippling the edge of its head like a dancer’s invisible tutu.
Was it one or two millimeters wide? I wondered, and how could it manage in the vastness of this glowing green water? But it was alive, and as I stared at this baby jellyfish, making his journey across the lake, I thought, “That’s a life right there!” It didn’t have eyes or ears, or a brain I could see, or breathing lungs, or a vertebrae, or paws, or a sense of smell—but it was a living thing that was living right in front of me, moving its one-millimeter long body across the ocean with purpose and drive—a traveler like me, grooving along on its own random path on this planet.
The jellyfish only inhabit the top 45 feet of the lake. Any lower and you encounter a six-foot layer of pink bacteria, and below that, there is no more light or oxygen—only a deeper and highly-poisonous layer of dissolved hydrogen sulfide gas.
Nature’s balancing act of life and death becomes more and more apparent the more I see of it, and Jellyfish Lake showed me the mysterious beauty of evolution—how this one rare animal is the result of so many other natural factors that create this utterly unique situation on this one spot on the planet.
Long after the others went back to the boat, Sylvia and I remained in the lake, lingering among the magical green soup of tropical water, polka-dotted with millions of pink-orange jellyfish. Suddenly, I was inside the very magazine I had read all those years ago—as if I had gone back in time and jumped right into that glossy page from 1982. As travel moments go, this one was pretty awesome.
To celebrate National Geographic’s 125th Anniversary, we could have traveled anywhere—to the pyramids of Egypt, the grand temples of Greece, or the Great Wall of China—but instead, we came here, to Palau, far out in the South Pacific, to the tiny limestone isle of Mecherchar where we joined a lady who loves the water and jumped in a lake of pink jellyfish and felt amazed.