Ever wanted to swim in a sea full of gelatinous brainless aliens? Well, you’re in luck.
On the western side of the Pacific Ocean is Palau, an island nation home to Jellyfish Lake, one of the world’s weirdest and most fascinating tourist destinations.
Jellyfish Lake is exactly what it sounds like – a lake absolutely full to the brim of jellyfish. They happen to sting so mildly that humans can’t feel it at all, which makes it the perfect swimming destination, right? (It wouldn’t be my first thought, but it seems like that’s the conclusion plenty of other people jump to.)
It’s possible for anyone to purchase a permit and hike up to this lake that millions of jellies call home. There’s nothing stopping you from heading out there and jumping right on into that salt water left over from when this lake was once connected to the ocean, and witnessing the beauty (or, if you’re me, the horrors) of this miraculous (or deeply frightening) natural phenomenon.
It’s wonderfully easy to bring a snorkel mask and dive right in. You can swim out to the center of the lake and explore the gigantic colony of jellyfish that live there. Although the population of the jellyfish in jellyfish lake has fluctuated over the years, they’re on the rise again as the only natural predators in the lake are stationary anemones.
What people see below the water is like another world. Proceed with caution: here there be jellies.
25 AS FUN AS THIS SOUNDS
There they all are, lurking just below the surface of the lake. It's so rare to see so many jellyfish together all at once, and it just me, or is it deeply unsettling?
The lake is absolutely their domain, and there's an absence of much other wildlife. The touring photographers who visit the lake do their best to capture just how many jellies there are, but I imagine it's difficult to gather a full sense unless you dive in yourself. But then again, aren't photos enough?
24 I JUST REALLY RATHER NOT
Listen, they're amazing miracles of nature, but they're also brainless goobs. Not only do jellyfish literally not have brains, but they don't have a central nervous system. Or eyes. Or a digestive system.
How are they alive? I don't know. These animals don't possess brains or other vital organs, but they still seem to exist quite happily.
Quite frankly, it's alarming. But hey, at least they're beautiful?
23 THEY EXIST WITHOUT RHYME OR REASON
How many times per day do you think a jellyfish bumps into another jellyfish, and how little do you think it matters?
It's amazing that their thoughtless existence is so plentiful and that it adds so much to the ecosystem of the lake. Not only are these jellyfish multiplying like crazy, but the fact that they live in this lake and swim back and forth each day churns the water and mixes the nutrients in ways that other living things in the lake, mostly algae, really benefit from. Much of their lives must be accidental, but hey, the jellies are doing some good work to keep the lake beautiful.
22 THEY'RE HARMLESS, THEY SAID, IT'LL BE FUN, THEY SAID
Snorkeling is the most popular activity for tourists on an expedition to Jellyfish Lake. And sure, if you enjoy snorkeling and if you, unlike myself, do not mind closely encountering the unknowable mysteries of sea life, it's the opportunity of a lifetime.
It's important to note that scuba diving is not allowed in the lake because it's too dangerous. There are high levels of hydrogen sulfide about 15 meters down, and being exposed to hydrogen sulfide for too long can be deadly to humans. So that's fun.
21 I MEAN REALLY, WHAT EVEN IS THAT?
They just look like they shouldn't be real, you know? It's like looking at a strange cell under a microscope, something very tiny that has permission to look different from most of the living things we see on a day to day basis.
But of course, these jellyfish are not the microscopic sort: golden jellyfish can be about 5.5 inches long. This might not seem very big, but it's bigger than the size of a teacup, and honestly? That's a bit too big for me.
20 GO FOR IT, I GUESS
So many of the fantastic photos of swimmers in jellyfish lake are beautiful, and they're also rather haunting.
Jellyfish are creatures that wear many hats – sometimes they look like monsters, sometimes they look like aliens, and if you catch them at the right angle, I'd say they look like ghosts, wouldn't you? Any way you choose to look at them, they're spectral beauties of a tropical island.
19 BEAUTIFUL MONSTERS, WHAT WEIRDOS
Moon jellyfish are the other species of jellyfish that intensely populate this lake. Like the golden jellyfish, these aren't dangerous to humans. If you brush up against one, you might feel a slight stinging sensation, which is enough to keep me far away, but visitors to Jellyfish Lake don't seem to be bothered.
The two types of jellies together – one golden like the sun, the other named after the moon – make Jellyfish Lake an utterly magical destination. Almost enough for me to want to see it for myself. Almost.
18 ARE WE SURE THEY'RE NOT PLANTS?
I've said it already and I'll certainly mention it again. Jellyfish don't. Have. Brains. And still, they migrate across the lake each day with such purpose!
The golden jellyfish chase after the sun because they rely on the sunlight to live. (Because they're basically plants.)
Algae-like organisms that need light for photosynthesis live inside the jellyfish and give them energy, and the jellyfish are able to respond to this need and swim to the parts of the lake that get the most sun at different times of the day. They're just like plants that can move around to avoid being in the shadows.
17 THIS IS A LITTLE OMINOUS, RIGHT?
It's amazing that creatures exist on this earth that are transparent. You can see right through these moon jellies! (And as hard as you search, you won't find a brain on one of these buddies, or much of anything else.)
There's something endearing about how strange they are. Maybe if you visit them in person, they're more lovable. If you give them a chance to introduce themselves, and so on. The visitors to Jellyfish Lake certainly seem universally enchanted by them.
16 THEY LITERALLY DON'T HAVE BRAINS
Animals without brains. Who decided this was okay.
A group of jellyfish is called a smack, and it feels like an apt name. Most jellyfish don't have a sense of direction, and these jellies only follow the sun because the algae that live with them compel them to. They just float wherever the current pushes them, for the most part. They don't know what they might smack into, and they don't seem to mind.
15 THEY'RE CUTE IF YOU SQUINT
There really is something about these odd balloon creatures that make them seem soft and friendly. Beautiful shots like this one almost convince me that jellyfish aren't monsters from outer space.
Photography in Jellyfish Lake is an incredible feat, and this has got to be one of the best and most unique places in the world to test your underwater photography skills. There's a field day to be had for tourists who have the equipment to document their experiences with these floating oddballs.
14 THE VAST UNFEELING VOID
Jellyfish Lake is pretty big – it's 14 acres in total, and it's 1,509 feet long. There is a lot of wide open blue for the jellyfish to roam, which is great for them and intimidating to travelers like myself. Imagine floating in the middle of Jellyfish Lake, and there's nothing you can see in the water on any side of you, aside from jellies upon jellies.
For a bold underwater adventurer who doesn't mind splashing into unknown underwater worlds, I'm sure it's a fantastic sort of view. But really, mightn't it be nice to stay on the shore and keep your feet under you?
13 WHAT ARE THEY THINKING? OH, THAT'S RIGHT, THEY AREN'T
Almost everything jellyfish do is accidental. Out in the ocean, the currents pull them from place to place. The jellyfish have no real individual desires – because as we remember, they're animals without brains, so they can't choose to do anything at all.
It's also an accident that there are so many jellies together in Jellyfish Lake. They aren't social creatures, and they don't especially benefit from being in a large group. It doesn't matter to them that there are millions upon millions crowded into a relatively small lake area.
12 IF YOU CAN GET PAST THE Jellyfish FACTOR, IT'S A BEAUTIFUL LAKE
Really, if you look past the golden mystery creatures, Jellyfish Lake itself is undeniably an escape from the rest of the world. It's within the Rock Islands of Palau, and they are mostly uninhabited. It's a quiet sanctuary just for you and the jellies, with likely no other people around. The Rock Islands are home to about 70 other lakes, but Jellyfish Lake is the only one that's open to tourists.
11 IT'S JUST THAT THEY MAKE NO SENSE, YOU KNOW?
Sure, maybe it's magical to encounter life so utterly different from human life, but the level of unpredictability we're dealing with when we mess with jellies leaves me a little on edge.
There is no way of knowing what these jellyfish are going to do next. I mean, you can track their movement across the lake as they follow the sun, but on a smaller scale, there's no easy way to tell if or how they make decisions. And hey, I guess I'm just a fan of structure, but it'd be nice to understand these animals on any level.
10 Look At Those Tentacles
Look at those tentacles! This fellow, like all jellyfish, has cells on its tentacles that eject venom when they are touched. The good news is that this is a golden jellyfish, the most populous kind of jellyfish in Jellyfish Lake, and its sting is so incredibly mild that it would never be able to cause pain to a human, despite its appearance.
Sure, golden jellyfish have an incredible color, and sure, they look like magical little suns floating through the water, but the bottom line is that they're poisonous sea balloons and I just don't feel great about it.
9 LOOK AT THEM, JUST BLUBBING AROUND
Jellyfish lake is one of about 70 beautiful, picturesque lakes in the Rock Islands, and it's the only one out of all of them that exhibits this jellyfish phenomenon. The accident of the ocean leaving behind jellyfish has created this one-of-a-kind location.
And really, what are the odds? Maybe statistics are telling you to go elsewhere? This one seems a bit crowded. Wouldn't it be nice to seek out total solitude and not have to share your vacation with millions upon millions of slimy plant creatures?
8 I MEAN I GUESS THEY'RE KIND OF SWEET
When visiting Jellyfish Lake, it's important to look on the bright side of things and maintain a positive outlook. If you must swim through hordes of jellyfish, at least use your optimism and your willpower to think of them fondly. Maybe they're less like weird sentient balloons and more like... aquatic pillows. Maybe they're soft?
7 JELLYFISH, WHAT ARE YOUR DREAMS?
Jellyfish are so different from other animals that they have their own classification. They don't count as mammals, or fish, or reptiles. They're just jellies.
Even though they're practically aliens, they do sleep, or at least they slow down at night to rest. Maybe they're not so different from us after all – they live, they eat, they sleep. And what more can we ask of them, really?
6 MYSTERIOUS SQUISHY ORBS
Not quite a plant, not quite an animal. Some scientists regard them as a mix of both. Life is simple, life is easy.
Another reason why scuba diving isn't allowed at the lake is because the air bubbles from diving tanks upset the balloon caps of the jellyfish. It's a strange, fragile world they live in, and it's so unlike anywhere else on the planet that it's easy to upset the ecosystem. Floating is harder than it looks, both for the jellyfish and for the humans who have to navigate their way through so many odd little orbs.
5 CLEARLY, SOME PEOPLE GET A KICK OUT OF THIS
For those who decide they do want to face the jellies head-on and get an up-close look at them (or through them, as the case may be) there are plenty of guided tours of Jellyfish Lake available.
It's a destination that is accessible to English speakers and to Japanese speakers, because Palau was under Japanese rule for some time. On their way to the lake, tourists will likely encounter both languages, as well as Palauan, the native language of the region. But of course, swimming with the jellyfish of the lake is an experience that goes beyond language – for joy or terror, you decide.
4 WE CAN'T BE FRIENDS BECAUSE YOU CAN'T FEEL
There is nothing in these water-dwelling balloons that lets them understand social behaviors. Jelly, I'd love to get to know you, but you're incapable of emotion.
You aren't ever happy and you aren't ever afraid; you just keep floating, and nothing much seems to bother you. You just exist. All day long, you just are. Maybe there's something beautiful about that, jelly. Maybe there's something deeply wise about your meaningless existence.
3 AS ABOVE, SO BELOW
An aerial view offers a sense of just how many jellyfish there are in this lake. Every dot visible in the water of this photo is a clump of jellyfish: the total number hovers somewhere between 13 and 20 million.
In recent months, the jellyfish population declined for unknown reasons, to the degree that the lake was actually closed to visitors for a while while the population recovered. Luckily the jellyfish seem to be returning, and the lake is open to visitors once again. (Still, it's worth checking the status of the lake if you are so keen as to actually plan a trip to spend time with an unfathomable amount of water zombies.)
2 MAYBE A JELLYFISH PARADISE IS YOUR PARADISE, TOO
Maybe it'd be nice to have a bunch of squishy friends who can't think or feel. Maybe it'd be comforting to let loose with the jellyfish and exist in a way that asks very little of you – to follow the sun and enjoy the water, and nothing more.
That really is what vacations are all about – maybe jellyfish are so good at letting go of their worries that they're relaxation role models for those looking for an escape destination.
But then again, a nice nap on the dry, warm beach that is very much clear of jellyfish might offer the same kind of peace.
1 SOULLESS? YOU DECIDE
National Geographic officially refers to the golden jellyfish living in Jellyfish Lake as a "gelatinous horde," and if that's not unsettling, I have nothing left to say to you.
On one hand, I can understand the appeal – it must be life changing to swim in this water, surrounded by literally millions of creatures that can so rarely be encountered in such a safe and personal way. To feel sublimely small.
But on the other hand, you're unavoidably outnumbered by gigantic groups of mindless sea creatures, and it'd just be a lot to handle.
References: National Geographic, Palau Live Adventures, Atlas Obscura