Bucket List: Swimming With A Million Jellyfish In Palau
Bucket List: Swimming With A Million Jellyfish In Palau
Updated 2020: After being closed for two years due to the natural decimation of the jellyfish population from high temperatures, the jellyfish population has recovered and Palau has reopened Jellyfish Lake to visitors.
The very idea of swimming in a body of water surrounded by an endless swarm of jellyfish is something that might send shivers down the spine most of people, and that same idea is precisely why I flew all the way out to the remote islands of Palau. I’ve been stung by a few jellyfish over the years and it is not fun. And no, I’ve never peed on myself after being stung…or have anyone else pee on me…that I can’t remember.
What made this an instant bucket list item for me was finding out that there was a lake in Micronesia where you can swim with a million jellyfish that are completely harmless to humans. It’s absolutely insane and I had to experience it myself.
How To Swim With Jellyfish In Palau
This is a simple one. Fly to Palau, book a tour to visit the Jellyfish Lake, and prepare to be amazed. I’ll go into details below.
Getting To Palau and Jellyfish Lake
You can fly commercially to Koror, Palau (ROR) from one of 5 places: Guam (1.5 hrs), Manila, Philippines (2.5 hrs), Taipei, Taiwan (4 hrs), Tokyo, Japan (4 hrs), and Seoul, Korea (4.5 hours). Coming from San Francisco, I decided to stop by Tokyo for a week first because sushi, sushi, and sushi. You can get a 30 day visa on arrival (1 year for US citizens), so that was one thing I didn’t have to worry about. The airport is about 5 miles away from Koror (where you’ll want to stay), and costs about $20.
Most flights arrive at night, so it’s best to arrange a pick-up with your hotel before arrival. Grabbing a taxi isn’t that difficult either.
Once you’ve settled in, your hotel can probably arrange for you to be on one of the tours heading to Jellyfish Lake. These tours usually combine the Jellyfish Lake as part of a snorkeling or kayaking trip around the Rock Islands, Palau’s main attraction. Likewise, dive shops can arrange a trip to Jellyfish lake as well. Either way, you can’t just go on your own.
Prior to heading out, you’ll also have to pick up a Palau Jellyfish Lake and Rock Islands permit. This will cost you a $100. It’s steep I know, but better you know ahead of time. With the logistics out of the way, all that’s left is to pack a pair of swim trucks and prepare to have your mind blown.
Are The Jellyfish Dangerous?
Short answer: No. Long answer: Noooooo. The jellyfish in the lake have been isolated so long without a need to use their stingers that they have evolved to lose them. Instead, they feed on the algae in the lake. If anything, we are potentially the danger to them as tourists recklessly flop about with their fins kicking into their delicate composition. It’s safe to go into the water, except for the saltwater crocodiles. Just kidding, those guys hide in the mangroves outside the lake. You’re good.
Where To Stay In Koror
There’s a range of options for travelers of all budgets in Palau, but most of them are in the mid to high range.
The Cheapest Place To Stay In Koror
I found one of the cheapest place that turned out to be amazing: Ms. Pinetree’s Hostel. This turned out to be one of the best decisions I made on the trip. The family-run hostel is basically a house with 4 rooms (2 dorms and 2 private rooms). They also offered their own tours that were cheaper than the other tour operators and the genial older gentleman who takes you out (Francis) also happens to be the guy who discovered most of the dive site on the island. This was more home than hostel.
If they are not available, Antelope Guesthouse offers a similar style of accommodation at a very good price.
The Best Places To Stay In Koror
Like most destinations where I spend a bit of time, I like to treat myself to a night or two in higher end hotels. At the very least, I will do deep research to get the best value when I’m going to be spending more money than usual.
Update 2020: In Koror, there’s a surprisingly amount of options since they used to cater to large Chinese tour group, until the recent ‘travel ban’ keeping mainland Chinese tourists from visiting Palau. These large luxury hotels are struggling to fill spaces and are now available at lower rates than usual.
The Palau Royal Resort is the premier hotel in Koror, but it’s also a little dated now and on the pricier end. Still, you’ll probably get the best service and the largest pool here.
I spent a night at the Palau Central Hotel and I found this to be great value. You have a large hotel ground with a beautiful pool, all the amenities and about half the price of the Palau Royal Resort. Use the link and you’ll get breakfast included.
For something a little more intimate and really gets you into the local tropical vibe, I would recommend Palau Caroline’s Resort, which was the other place I considered.
Best Dive Company In Palau
There are a surprisingly amount of dive operators and companies in Palau, so you have a lot of options, which is great, but makes the decision harder. Most resorts have their own dive masters. There are liveaboard companies that offer weeklong all-inclusive stay and dive packages.
For those who just want to do a few dives and trips out to the Jellyfish Lake, I suggest going with one of the more reputable dive operators in Palau. Palau Dive Adventures is the most well known operator in and around Koror. They offer individual dives and dive packages, but I found them to be more on the expensive side.
To my luck, the local family who own Ms. Pinetree’s Hostel are also divers. And that’s sort of an understatement. The grand patriarch of the family was one of the earlier divers in Palau and he discovered many of the major dive sites that people go to today. He’s semi-retired now, but will take guests out privately along with another member of the family who will be the divemaster and guide.
I was worried this would be more expensive, but it turned out to be so much cheaper than any of the dive operators.
On my dive trip, it was just me and a couple also staying at the hostel. This was truly a hidden gem. Not only was the group smaller and more private, it was cheaper than all the other dive shops. When I arranged for a day trip around the Rock Islands and Jellyfish Lake, it was just me and my friend AND we were able to customize the trip to go to less frequented sites and at times when he knew the other hordes of tourists weren’t there. I simply cannot recommend them enough. On Sunday, I even came down early into the living room to watch some football. It really felt like being at home, except I was in paradise.
The Magic of Jellyfish Lake and The Rock Islands
We checked out a few spots before getting to Jellyfish Lake including a few wrecks. I’ll talk about that in a separate post about exploring Palau’s underwater world. This is all about the jellies. Sometime in the early afternoon, we arrived at the pier leading to the lake, grabbed our gear and checked in with the guards who made sure that we had our permits. I recommending taking along this GoPro if you don’t professional underwear gear. The wider angle and ease of mounting on a selfie stick makes this a great option to get shots of yourself underwater surrounded by the jellyfish.
My other setup was the RX100 IV in my Nauticam Housing. Make sure you also have a pair of sandals because there’s a steep and rocky 10 minute hike to get to the lake itself. At the lake, there’s a little dock where you can leave them there.
The photo above shows what it looks like when you arrive. It’s a pretty big lake and the jellyfish are constantly moving to follow the sun and their food source. On most tour groups, you’ll jump in with your life vest and follow the guide until he finds the swarm. We opted to do this part alone, so we basically just started swimming out to where there we saw a tour group leaving from.
Despite seeing the photos before arriving, I still had no idea what to expect. On the way out, we saw nothing and I was a little nervous that we might not find them without a guide. That worry soon disappeared as I saw my first jellyfish. And then another. And another.
I was already pretty excited at this point and it kept getting better. We stumbled into the right spot and soon enough those 10 jellyfish were joined by a few hundred and then just like I had seen, I was surrounded by thousands and thousands of jellyfish in every direction. It was stunning beyond belief. I would take a deep breath and dive down as long as I could coming up only when I knew I couldn’t stay down any longer. I’d gasp for air and repeat the process. It was magical.
When I surfaced, it was pretty weird and a little funny to feel them bouncing and bobbing off my body and legs. I tried to kick as gracefully and carefully as possible to avoid hurting any of them.
The surreal part is that for as many as you see on the surface or near the top of the water, the numbers multiple the deeper you go. I kept going deeper and deeper each time I dived down. There were big bulbous ones and small ones that were tinier than a finger nail.
Unlike swimming through a school of fish, they did not part and you simply bumped them out of the way with your face and body. As it got darker, they almost glowed against the water, suspended with a rhythmic pulsing as they moved in all directions.
On one particular dive, I started spinning and turning as I was going down to just immerse myself in this unbelievable place. I lost track of time and my bearings. The deeper I went, the greener the water became until all I saw in every direction was green and of course the jellyfish.
I don’t know how deep I went, but I felt like I had passed some invisible barrier and in another place altogether. It took a few seconds, though it felt much longer, but eventually I turned around enough to see a brighter area and started swimming towards that light. Coming up towards the bluer water, I felt both a sense of relief and an unexpected nostalgia already that I might never be in that world again.
When I came up, I realized that the entire lake was empty except for me and my friend. From what I had read about the hordes of tourists coming in here, I never imagined that I could have the place practically to myself. We spent about an hour there before deciding that it was best to leave before we were oversaturated by the experience.
I’m sure like most, Palau made it onto my radar because of Jellyfish Lake, but this is not the only thing they’re known for. The diving and snorkeling here is spectacular. Because they only so many tourists a year, the natural part of is very much untouched.
What else have you been dying to do? If you need some ideas, check out my long bucket list and see if you’ve missed a thing or two.