We’re all keen travellers here, and we all know what a wide range of wonders this beautiful planet of ours has to offer. That’s the beauty of it: everyone’s tastes are catered to.
Are you a typical lazy sun-worshipping vacationer, who is content to lay on the beach, get sun on your body and sand in your crevices? Knock yourself out. From Bondi to Daytona, the world’s full of fantastic beaches.
If you’re more of a sightseer, you can put together a bucket list of essential sights that’ll keep you busy until at least the year 5000. The Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, the Taj Mahal, Buckingham Palace, Niagara Falls, the pyramids of Giza, Chichen Itza… the list goes on and on.
What makes for an essential sight or experience, though? That’s also down to personal preference. For some of us, the likes of the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal are far too cliché. Everyone’s been there, these people will tell you. It’s far too touristy.
If you prefer to strike a balance between the popular and the obscure, how about Jellyfish Lake? This natural wonder is certainly visited a lot, but it’s still way off the beaten track compared to some attractions.
It’s important to note that Jellyfish Lake is currently closed to visitors (for reasons we’ll get into later), but if you want to check out what the lake is like in its prime, as well as learn about the mystery of the golden jellyfish, their adorable stingers (because stingers can be adorable) and the ‘poisoned’ water, this one’s for you.
We’re going to start right at the beginning, because it’ll be a darn short article if we start at the end and I’ve got seventeen iguanas and a chimpanzee to support. Jellyfish Lake is situated in Palau, Micronesia, on Eil Malk Island.
Eil Malk is known for its curious Y-shaped formation, the thick blanket of trees that covers much of the land and its dozen or so lakes. The most famous of these is Jellyfish Lake, which is known for… raise your hand if you’ve guessed it. That’s right, friends, the whole heckola of a lot of jellyfish that reside there.
If you can stomach a rather crowded swim like this, this was (note the past tense) the place for you.
Oh, yes indeed. If you can deal with the innumerable squishy denizens who have absolutely zero respect for anybody’s personal space (it’s just your average trip on public transport, only wetter, jelly-ier and the jellies don’t have cellphones to stare at), there’s another peril of Jellyfish Lake to consider: the water is partly poisonous to humans.
As reported by Padi, the lake’s water has different layers. A pink bacterial layer prevents oxygen from penetrating the lowest layer (starting at 40 feet or so). Down here, the water contains hydrogen sulphide, which is toxic to humans. There’s a delicate balance keeping the two in check, which is why, when public access was/is permitted, scuba diving was not.
So, yes. If divers were to penetrate that lower layer, they would mix (as is usually the case with similar lakes). That’s the sort of thing that would ruin your entire week, and those of the jellyfish too. Considering that the squelchy little guys and gals have zero concept of time and how crappy Mondays are, that gives you a good idea of how bad it would be.
Despite that, though, swimming was permitted (and hopefully will be again; more on that later). While the resident jellies were super unlikely to harm people, it’s still a surreal and slightly frightening experience.
While you were bobbing about with these curious creatures, you probably knew very little about them. After all, many of us very rarely see jellyfish, except in the odd aquarium. Could you tell one species from another?
To help you identify these beautiful-in-a-broccoli-looking-sort-of-way creatures, Jellyfish Lake is best known for its Golden Jellyfish. As National Geographic reports, these passive animals tend to grow to around 5.5 inches, and are all but harmless.
They played (again, past tense) a vital part in the upkeep of the lake itself, by churning the nutrients and stimulating the food chain within the waters as they bob along.
Now, that phrase, I sure as heckles do not care for. After scarring life experiences in public pools with splash-happy children (and bellyflopping paunchy dads), I appreciate as much darn space as possible when I’m trying to swim.
Nevertheless, like swimming in a lava lamp is exactly how Padi describes the experience that awaited visitors to Jellyfish Lake. Human and jelly swimming in perfect harmony, with no need to fear or really be bothered by each other.
As you can see here, it’s equal parts unsettling and super inviting. Well, more like 80-20 for me, personally, but there it is.
That’s right, friends. Maybe you’ve made peace with the passive jellies. They might want to bob all up in your grill (and all you other appendages besides), but that’s all part of the experience. That’s what you were signing up for when you came to Jellyfish Lake.
It’s all in the name, after all. You’ll notice, though, that there’s no mention of big, tooth-tastic angry bitey freaking crocodiles in the name.
Regardless, though, there are saltwater crocodiles in Palau, but you’re very unlikely to encounter any. They are a thing to bear in mind, though, I feel.
Oh, yes indeedy-o. That was just a little something for you Shrek fans out there. I hope you appreciated the references.
On the subject of layers, let’s take another look at the fascinating waters of this lake. As the scientifically-inclined might know, there are two different terms for a body of water with different layers: a holomictic or a meromictic lake. In the first, the layers of water will naturally mix at least once a year, while in the second, they do not.
Jellyfish Lake, then, is a meromictic body, which was churned in all the right ways by its gloopy residents.
Following on from that last point, meromictic lakes are much less common than their mixed-up counterparts. As such, they make for intriguing case studies. You know, even when they aren’t an all-you-can-swim-with jellyfish buffet… of swimming.
Jellyfish Lake itself is a delicate and unique ecosystem all its own. The balance of life here (it’s not just about jellies, friends) developed over time, as a response to the area’s unique situation. I hope these bold swimmers were appreciating the true wonder of the lake, and not just getting caught up in the surreal and peculiar experience. Still, that’s just me.
Not only is Jellyfish Lake’s ecosystem unique, but it’s also very isolated. As with Brazil’s world famous Snake Island, the whole thing was formed when a small area was cut off. The resident jellies were forced to gradually adapt to their new permanent home, and adapt they did. It’s another super interesting case study, for sure.
As Palau Dive Adventures explains, the Golden Jellyfish are close relatives of the Spotted Jellyfish. This species is found in the waters around Eil Malk island, but not in the actual lake itself. How do the two species differ? Well, that’s what we’re about to see.
So, how long have the Golden Jellyfish and their human admirers been sharing the lake? Well, in historians’ terms, a whole holy heckola of a long time. Species don’t simply adapt to new circumstances overnight.
The lake was separated from the surrounding Pacific Ocean millions of years ago. The little guys have had more than enough time, then, to make a change or two in order to survive. One result of their unusual habitat is that they’ve developed some unique behaviours and traits. I hope they were careful letting the Golden Jellyfish swim around them, because these are not ordinary jellyfish.
That’s right, friends. Well, smart is relative, and you’re not going to see these things challenging human chess champions any time soon (how would they hold the pieces? HOW?), but for jellyfish, these things are special.
As All That’s Interesting reports, jellyfish tend to just bob around wherever the ocean currents take them. The Golden Jellies ae much more goal-oriented than that, though. They’ve been watching that Shia LeBeouf just do it meme, and they know what they want.
What do they want? The sun, that’s what. Jellyfish Lake was (and hopefully will be again) famous for the daily spectacle of millions of jellyfish migrating across the water, following the sun.
They’re not just lazily floating after the sun all day, though. Maybe they enjoy the attention, the selfies and such, and they’re not averse to visitors, but they’re still jellyfish.
What are jellyfish known for? Being pretty darn sting-happy, that’s what. There are species like the notorious Portuguese Man ‘O War, a sting from which is venomous enough to ruin the brief moments that would remain of your life afterwards.
The Golden Jellyfish, like many others, is (contrary to popular belief) equipped with stinging cells too. It does try, at least, and you’ve got to give it credit for that.
With that in mind, you might think that it sheds a whole new light on these images. That some of these swimmers are taking their lives into their own hands, swimming with so many of these jellies, and that lots of them are in mortal peril.
This could have been the case, granted, if the Golden Jellyfish’s sting was potent enough to harm anything larger than a grape. As National Geographic reports, their stings are so mild that humans don’t usually even notice them. Its potency is believed to have weakened over the long years that the lake has been isolated from the ocean at large.
With the name of the darn place being Jellyfish Lake and all, it’s fair to say that you’d expect a heaping helping of jellyfish. That’s supposed to be a given (it’s not the case these days, sadly, as we’ll see later).
In terms of sheer numbers of the critters, yes, there were millions of them. But in terms of size? As I say, the golden jellyfish reaches an average size of around 5.5 inches. Its fellow lake occupant, the moon jellyfish, reaches about twice that. Given that some species have tentacles that can reach well over 100 feet long, though, I don’t really know what to tell you.
So, there it is. Whether we’re looking at the golden jellyfish or the moon jellyfish, you’re almost certainly safe. Some swimmers have suggested that a sting may smart a little on more sensitive skin, such as the lips, but other than that? You’re fine.
This is where the whole lava lamp thing comes from. It might look like a harrowing, claustrophobic experience (and for some, I’m sure, it would be), but others would be thrilled to be swimming amid millions of these magnificent, fascinating little creatures. It’s not for everybody, not by a long chalk, but these swimmers? They can’t get enough.
So, yes. For much of this rundown so far, we’ve been waxing lyrical about the natural wonder that is these creatures and their habitat. The sheer mass of jellies that inhabit this beautiful lake was the main tourist draw, there’s absolutely zero doubt about that.
That’s far from all there is to the area, though. As they say, come for the jellyfish, stay for the shipwrecks and other priceless diving opportunities. Micronesia is awash with them, at Chuuk and the lesser-known Pohnpei to name but two. It’s a gorgeous part of the world, and it would be tough to imagine a more wonderful setting.
There are many reasons for tourists to visit this sun-kissed and region, with its plentiful beaches and unique opportunities. For many, though, jellyfish lake has been the big-ticket item, so it’s back to the jellies we go for our next entry.
As we know, the famous golden jellyfish have developed traits very different to their closest relatives, the spotted jellyfish that live nearby. In terms of their colouring and appendages, they’re completely distinct looking. So much so that marine biologist Michael Dawson proposed in his Five New Subspecies of Mastigias (Scyphozoa: Rhizostomeae: Mastigiidae) From Marine Lakes, Palau, Micronesia that they should be deemed a separate subspecies.
So, we’ve seen that the golden jellyfish would happily scoot across the lake on a daily migration, following the movement of the sun. Why do they do this, though? Are they just showboating? Are they social media attention seekers, just in it for the likes, retweets, favourites and little heart emojis?
Well, no. They’re motivated by the same driving force that makes any of us do anything: the desire for food. Their bodies are inhabited by a unique organism, like an algae. This organism photosynthesises and produces the jellyfish’s energy, but it needs sunlight to do so. This explains the daily pilgrimage.
With everything we’ve seen so far, you might think that these squishy little guys have quite the cushy life. Swimming in the sun all day, surrounded by adoring humans who want to take all kinds of artsy underwater shots of you… the golden jellyfish life is the life for me.
It’s not as easy as all that, though. They have few predators there in the lake, but they certainly do have some. Sea sponges, anemones and other jelly-lovers live on the lake’s walls, as Palau Dive Adventures reports. Passing through areas of shade and wherever else they lurk is a daily danger the jellyfish had to encounter as they followed the sun.
Don’t worry if you just burst into song on reading that headline. I did too, friends; I did too on writing it. You’re not alone. It’s great to know I can count on my posse.
Hastening back to the point at hand, regulation of the numbers of jellyfish by said predators is also crucial. In an ecosystem such as this, the balance is precarious and nothing can be taken for granted. Too many jellyfish could have dire consequences. You can’t blame the jelly-eaters. The meat-eaters just “do what they do,” as we all learned from Jurassic Park back in the 1990s.
Sadly, though, it doesn’t look as though an over-abundance of the creatures is something that Jellyfish Lake has to worry about any time soon. Over the course of this piece, I’ve been dropping past tense bombs everywhere, and there’s a reason for that: at the moment, the lake is off-limits to visitors.
Why? Because the jellyfish are rapidly disappearing. Lately, irate visitors have been paying for their passes to access the lake, only to discover that they… cannot access the lake. Numbers have been dwindling since 2016, and the authorities have taken the precaution of closing Jellyfish Lake in the hopes that they can make a recovery.
What’s the reason for this troubling turn of events? Well, needless to say, we humans and our habit of… well, not being so friendly to our planet has surely taken its toll, for one. As Scuba Diver Life reports, researchers have attributed several different factors to the loss.
One is the increasing influence of El Niño, warming water temperatures. A drought in the area has also played its part, as has a lack of that oh-so-crucial sunlight. It’s a range of different environmental factors, all adding up to one big tragedy for nature lovers and travellers everywhere. Is there anything we can do?
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we humans can be pretty darn terrible at times. Environmentalists will point to all the plastics in the oceans, the rainforests being destroyed and so on, and they’ll say, “You know what? This is pretty darn uncool, right here.” Will we listen, before the planet becomes one huge, terrible, choking Hunger Games? Who knows.
The sad fact is, the joyful swimmers you see in these slightly-spooky images may have been some of the last to enjoy the natural beauty of Jellyfish Lake in its squishy prime. What a sad loss this beautiful ecosystem would be.
As dire as the situation looks, we’ve got to remember that the jellyfish do have a chance to recover. Palau’s Coral Reef Research Foundation are closely monitoring the situation at Jellyfish Lake, in hopes of discovering exactly what went wrong and how/if it can be rectified.
In the meantime, the other important thing to remember is that this isn’t the first time these glorious creatures have been under threat. In 1999, a similar event occurred, and the juvenile jellies that survived in the lake were able to mature and repopulate it. This is the greatest hope for the continued existence of the golden jellyfish.
Things have gotten pretty darn tough in this bad old world. I passed a newsstand this morning, and saw about five different headlines that made me roll my eyes.
There are so many ominous things, uncertain things, and we just can’t know what the future will hold. What we can do is consider the kind of planet we’ll be leaving behind for future generations. Jellyfish Lake is much more than a natural phenomenon and a tourist attraction, it’s a symbol of something so much bigger and more important.
For those who have been brave enough to visit and swim there, and those that would like to, let’s hope it recovers. And that we learn something in the process.
Resources: Padi, National Geographic, Once In A Lifetime Journey, World Atlas, All That’s Interesting, Scuba Diver Life.