Sep 9, 2007

Ongeim'l Tketau, Palau – Jellyfish bumble against my mask. They pulse along my jaw, my throat, my neck. Five dozen at least, pressing close, like bubble wrap. Thousands more obscure the beer-bottle-green depths. In fact, this brackish lake shelters some 16 million mastigias medusae, plus some moon jellies.

I feel no pain.

Cause I'm hard like that.

OK, not really. You've come to love the hairless cat. Now meet the ouchless jellyfish. Or, rather, the jellyfish that hurts like flaying off an old Band-Aid.

About 20% of snorkelers experience a mild reaction; my exposed skin burns slightly, as if rubbed with chili or minty toothpaste. The price is small, compared to the sci-fi panorama.

The rock island is an ancient coral reef. Today tides seethe through its limestone cracks, but new critters can't breach its core – the lake. The result is some funky, funky evolution. Think jellyfish, now with bonus algae!!!

These "ultimate vegetarians" have a mutual relationship with zooxanthellae. Daylight come, they rotate around the lake, tracking the sun, so their lil' buddies can photosynthesize. Then they siphon off the resulting sugary goodness. At night, the jellyfish descend 15-20m to a layer lousy with hydrogen sulfide, which makes diving dangerous and forbidden here.

Visitors also should not touch, fold, spindle or mutilate the mastigias. I barely quaver my fins, afraid to slice their bubble-gum bodies. And every droplet in my snorkel spawns panic: what if I inhaled a rare jellyfish?

Oblivious, they trail chandeliered tentacles across my skin. Their bells – sunwarmed and soft, like a newborn's head – rebound off the curve of my palm, the swell of my cheek. All this protoplasm, primitive and blind, shimmers around the lake: jellies the size of gumdrops, grapefruit, globes.

As the sun sets, the jellies migrate into the western basin, juicing their algae to the last ray. But they stop where the mangrove shadows extend (good thing: there be hungry anemones), then cycle up and down. They're packed tight as a bullet train.

I scull gingerly. I drift towards the dock. And then I – the former lifeguard, Ms Too-cool-for-school – panic.

Endangered jellyfish are crowding my cleavage.

Gasping, I jerk my head above the surface. WTF? But it's just a wee touch of claustrophobia. And I'm not indulging in that, thanks very much.

I muzzle back into Ongeim'l Tketau, the great pink and green lava lamp of Palau.

Then, one hand blocking the wetsuit's scoop neck, the other fanning jellies, I fin into the dock.

Who's afraid of Bazooka Joe?

I am. I am.


  1. "The great pink and green lava lamp of Palau" - love that line. Wow!

    So you went to the famed jellyfish lake ... I've wanted to go since I saw Megan McCormick floating around with the non-life threatening jellyfish a couple of years ago on the Lonely Planet TV show ...

  2. "Endangered jellyfish are crowding my cleavage."

    You know what they say: two's company, ...

  3. DB: go, go, gooooooooo! It'll be a nice change from the high latitudes.

  4. JR: You really need a high-hat sound at the end of the comment...

    My friend Edward just watched a show where women crushed beer cans with their bosoms. So I guess I could have had a worse time of it.