*Before I begin, let me point out that several of these photos are not mine because there was no GoPro and the underwater iPhone case fogged up in the warm water. I need to step up my camera equipment before I hit the tropics again.*
The country of Palau is a humble little archipelago near Micronesia that very few have heard of, including me, before my father brought it up as a potential holiday destination in the summer of 2014. Relatively untouched by man, this West Pacific nation is home to some of the most whimsical creations on the planet. It is not home to good wifi or cellular coverage, which is kind of a glorious thing, so long as you don't mind being off the grid for your stay. Apparently it is a famous location known to divers all around the world, but SCUBA is a world I haven’t yet introduced myself to.
After connecting through Tokyo and then Guam, we arrived on the beautiful rock island of Koror, which seems to be the main destination for travelers going to Palau. Everyone on this island speaks English and the currency is the U.S. dollar, but everything is extremely expensive because tourism is the main component of their economy. The majority of their tourism comes from the financially stable nation of Japan, so this explains the precedent that has been set in the Palauan economy. We were totally unprepared for the cost of even the simplest of things, which is why I am pointing it out in this entry. A state license is required for any of the outdoor activities, which will run anywhere from $75-$300 or higher, depending on what it is that you seek. Aside from a few fresh seafood dishes, I would say the food was mediocre at best. This is definitely not a culinary capital, which is fine, we didn't come to eat. There aren’t many cars on the entire island which enables taxis and tourism board services to overcharge, as well, so we rented a car. I wouldn’t count on coming for any sort of nightlife or shopping, this is an island made for exploring and appreciating nature. Living in different corners of the world makes it difficult for my family to get together, so being isolated from technology and forced to focus solely on each others' company was quite pleasant.
The main feature that sold me on the need to visit Palau was a natural phenomenon known as Jellyfish Lake, a lagoon where millions of jellyfish exist peacefully without any natural predators, which has caused them to lose their poisonous stinging ability over time. This enables humans to go snorkeling in the warm salty water with tons of precious bubbly Golden Jellyfish bouncing around. This is easily one of the coolest things I have ever done, or ever will do, in my entire life. I am positive that anyone else who has had the pleasure would agree. We purchased a tour package (IMPAC tours) that took a group of about 25 tourists to Jellyfish Lake, Milky Way Lagoon, and a snorkeling expedition above a really flamboyant coral reef drop off which is likely the inspiration for the movie Finding Nemo. We booked our tour very last minute, so it was actually in Japanese, one of many languages I do not speak. My brother was kind enough to translate any vital safety information.
I initially thought Milky Way Lagoon was just going to be a stop on the way to Jellyfish Lake, but it was definitely more impressive than I was expecting. One of the tour guide assistants gathered a few buckets full of the magical sand from the ocean floor a few feet below the boat and instructed us how to slather it all over our bodies and faces. It was the softest, finest, silkiest mud I have ever felt. This stuff makes the consistency of any whip cream, lotion, pudding, or mousse seem like gravel. It allegedly has healing powers, but I’m pretty sure it is just mineral rich and therefore full of fancy nutrients for your skin. I’m not sure how much it improved the condition of my epidermis, but it definitely felt amazing and I wished I could have taken some home with me. After rubbing it in and allowing it to dry for a few minutes, we all jumped in to rinse off and went on our way to the next stop, the almighty Jellyfish Lake.
The boat pulled up to a dock that appeared to be connected to a hillside jungle. There was a park ranger hogtying a 3-foot long cayman (they're like smaller crocodiles) which was a bit unsettling, but he assured us they are very rare. Nothing was going to keep me from caressing those precious brainless creatures on the other side. My father was feeling under the weather but still tagged along for the journey, hoping to observe the jellyfishing from afar. He ended up having to stay on the boat, so if you have any companions that won't be snorkeling, they may want to skip the whole excursion. We had to climb a long steep set of steps, and descend an equally long set down to the jellyfish dock. It was very much a scene out of Indiana Jones. These steps are carved into the rock unevenly and therefore slightly slippery, which proved to be a bit of an obstacle in wet flip flops. Water shoes may be more ideal for this excursion, but who owns those? (I should probably acquire a pair…) I managed in flip-flops without spraining anything, but then again I have catlike reflexes. I'm half-kidding. As soon as we stepped on the dock, we could already see the few jellyfish that hadn’t made the coastal migration for the day. My heart was pumping with excitement, I don’t think I have ever squealed like such a piglet. We jumped in the warm water and swam about 100 feet until we were fully immersed in the masses of jellyfish. I had seen the photos, I knew what to expect, but it was one of those things that are truly unbelievable until you see it in person. This was my Aurora Borealis (until I get to see that, of course), they were EVERYWHERE. It would have been impossible to tread water without bumping into 30 at a time. There were some schools of fish that looked like minnows, but they hardly caught anyone’s attention. My brother and I took turns grabbing the tiniest jellyfish we could find and handing them to each other underwater. The smallest one we were able to briefly capture was about the size of a breath mint, the biggest one we saw was roughly the size of a softball. I could not believe how many there were, or that they really didn’t sting! It was the most whimsical experience of my life, by a landslide. Our time there was not long enough. We spent an hour or so treading water and admiring the wonder before we had to hike back to the boat.
Our next stop was at a small island with a picnic site where we ate the bento boxes provided by the tour, and spent some time wading and snorkeling in the shallow water offshore. My brother and I collected sand dollars and tried to catch glimpses of the tiny fish that were burrowing in tiny holes in the sand. We got back in the boat once again and rode the choppy waves out to the next point of interest, the coral reef drop off. I was at a complete loss for words, in disbelief that such creations exist. Partially because this was my first time ever using a snorkel outside of the community pool as a kid, but I am fairly certain that no matter where I go, Palau will always remain one of the most gorgeous snorkeling sites on Earth. We saw dozens of tropical fish, all different sizes and colors. The coral was also ravishing, so vibrant in so many different shapes and forms. The coral was maybe 10-12 feet below us, but the drop off looked like it went miles deep. We were instructed to stay away from the coral, as it is a sensitive piece of nature that is dying out in the world, thanks to humans. It’s so incredible how the fish carry on with their swimming instead of running off the way a lion or gazelle would upon spotting a safari truck. I wasn’t brave enough or skilled enough to dive deeper like some of the other people did, plus I didn’t have camera equipment to use. I felt like I saw plenty even from relatively close to the surface of the water. We spent an hour taking in all the glory and then, sadly the tour ended and we were back off to home base.
I will certainly make my way back to Palau someday, even though there are so many other places I still need to see. Next time, I will make sure to have the proper camera equipment with me, and plan to take advantage of the weeklong permit to visit Jellyfish Lake more than once. Who knows, maybe I will even be SCUBA certified by then. As I said, I would recommend Palau to anyone who has a thorough appreciation for nature and the ocean.. Thank you to all of the friendly Palauans who helped make our trip so memorable, I’ll be seeing you all again someday!