Exploring the Rock Islands: Jellyfish Lake and Giant Clam Beach

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This has been a game of careful what you wish for…no rain and LOTS OF SUN…it was a hot day, but also a fascinating day! We started out with a boat ride to Jellyfish Lake, one of the coolest places I’ve ever been. We hiked up some rocky stairs made for giants, over the top of a hill, and back down onto a dock where we jumped in for a snorkel. Depending on the direction of the sun, the jellyfish are usually concentrated on one side of the lake or the other. This morning they had already made their pulsating swim to the east. Jellyfish instinctively avoid shadows, and By migrating to the east with the sunrise, the jellyfish stop at the shadows extending across the lake before reaching the edge where white sea anemones await to feed on them, thus keeping them safe from their predators. By the dock, where we jumped in, there were hardly any. As we swam the half kilometer toward the weather station, used to monitor the conditions of the lake, the concentration increased. Soon, we were swarmed by millions, no exaggeration, of “non-stinging” Golden Jellyfish. It is estimated that there are over 5 million Golden Jellyfish in the lake whose population was completely destroyed in 1998 due to an El Niño weather event that increased the lake’s temperature by several degrees. The population, however, returned in 2001 and is back to its pre-1998 levels. Technically, the jellyfish do have stingers, but the sting is so light, it isn’t harmful to humans, and it is generally only felt in sensitive areas. We softly touched them and tried not to kick much because the fins cut them in half. We had to get used to their slimy touch at first, but after a few squirms and uncontrolled jerks, we just stopped in the midst of them, held them and watched them rotate counter-clockwise toward the surface seeking the sun.

The algae on the jellies converts sunlight into food which creates energy for both the algae and its host. In the afternoon, the jellies migrate to the west, again to meet the shadows before reaching the edge of the lake where the anemones lurk. At night-time, the jellies swim up and down reaching depths of 15-17 meters. At such depths, the lake is red with bacteria where the algae gets its nutrients. The jellies avoid the lake’s bottom layer which contains no oxygen and has high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide…highly poisonous to humans, fish, and jellyfish…thus no diving is allowed in the lake. This permanent stratification in the lake, between the oxygenated upper layer and anoxic lower layer is extremely rare. There are only 200 lakes in the world that have been identified with such characteristics and most of them are freshwater. There are, however, eleven permanently stratified lakes in Palau which require three conditions to keep the water from mixing vertically: rock walls and trees to block the wind, sources of water (rain and tidal flows through tunnels) to be at the surface, and the small seasonal temperature changes of the tropics. Jellyfish Lake is one of only two habitats in the world with “non-stinging” jellyfish. We were lucky to have the lake to ourselves for about thirty minutes before a mob of tourists came poring in.


Jellyfish Lake Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i5o5IfMnfnw

After Jellyfish Lake, we paddled a short distance to see the Yap stone money, the largest currency in the world. They carved the money into a donut shape out of crystal calcite quarried from Palau and only stopped carving the money around 100 years ago. If a stone cracked while it was carved or transported, it was considered worthless and left behind. It wasn’t even used to carve smaller pieces of money from it, as it was considered bad luck. The stone money, while a fixed supply, is still in use today. The value of the stone is determined by its size, the loss of life associated with transporting the stone, the tools used to carve the piece (shells or newer metal), and if the stone was dedicated to a chief. The stone money is used to buy land, to tender apologies, and even to buy friends and wives, as well as everything else in between. Since the stone money is difficult to move, it stays where it currently resides (generally outside), and any shift in ownership is completed publicly in front of the chief and elders, so that community knows who owns each stone. These large pieces, despite sometimes being worth several hundred thousand dollars, are never stolen between villages as this is considered very bad. We were able to see the Yap stone money in Palau because it cracked and was left behind.

From the Yap stone money, we paddled between the Rock Islands and through the channels without much protection from the sun. As such, we ditched our planned lunch spot for the choice of closer beach which we name, Desperation Beach. Surprisingly, the sun wasn’t bothering me as much as it was bothering some of the other southerners, but perhaps I was just happy to be out of the Denver snow and the Palau rain! And the light highlighted one of my favorite things: the multi-shades of blues in the island lagoons…simply glorious!

After our lunch on the beach, Bax picked us up in the boat and took us to three snorkel sites…Rainbow Reef, Giant Clam Reef, and Wonder Channel. The fish at Rainbow Reef clearly used to be fed as the wrasse and needlefish would swim up to our masks and circle around us. I stuck my hand out, and a wrasse bit me! The Giant Clam Reef was aptly named. It was home to four feet long clams, weighing 300 hundred pounds. They can get as large as 800 pounds. All the snorkels were nice, but with the tide a little high, the water slightly choppy, and the coral damaged from the January typhoon, marine photography conditions were not the finest.

We loaded back on the boat and were transported to Pirates Cove, via Kingfisher Arch, where we paddled around the placid waters and limboed under another tunnel to Hidden Lake. Finally we made our way toward our new campsite, waving at the guy from Liberal, Kansas who moored his catamaran in the protection of the Rock Islands, before we paddled across the open water to Jackson’s Beach…another great spot for camp! ETB


For notecards and key chains, visit My Shop on this website.

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned award winning travel blogger and photographer sharing the earth's beauty one word and image at a time.

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