Jellyfish Lake



David Whitley tries to fight back his instinctive fears of being stung to death as he swims through a lake full of jellyfish in Palau 


It’s incredible how some reactions become so ingrained that they stick permanently. I’ve been told the lake is safe, I’ve been told that the critters within can’t hurt me, but when I’m confronted with a jellyfish, I instinctively want to get the hell away from it.


One of Palau’s many quirks is a lake full of very special jellyfish. Thousands of years ago, a crunch of tectonic plates created the Rock Islands. Many of these islands have marine lakes – caused by the saltwater seeping through cracks in the limestone. The golden jellyfish that can be found in some of them – only one is open to visitors – are the direct descendents of the original organisms swept in with the rising waters.


Most jellyfish use their tentacles for hunting purposes. The sting kills or stuns the prey. But the jellyfish in Palau’s marine lakes had a problem – it was just them, and nothing to hunt. So they evolved from hunters to farmers, using the tentacles for hosting algae. The algae growing on them gives the jellies in the lake a slightly shabby, browned look – like net curtains dipped in tea, or Miss Havisham’s wedding dress from Great Expectations.


To get to the lake, a steep hike up and down a rocky hill that seems specifically designed to tear feet to shreds is required. At the bottom, the water unfolds, and... um, there’s not a jellyfish in sight. “That’s because this part is in the shade,” our guide tells us. “The jellies like soaking up the sun.” We’re given life jackets – so that we can float without having to kick to maintain buoyancy – and fins. That means any kicking is a sweeping movement, less likely to chop any of the jellies in half.


As we swim further into the lake, they start appearing. The odd one down to the left, another floating to the right. I instinctively flinch when I see them, and the whole freaking out thing is about to get much, much worse.


We paddle our way towards the middle of the lake, and they start appearing thick and fast. It’s like a game of Space Invaders. I suddenly twig that there aren’t hundreds of jellyfish in here, but hundreds of thousands. Possibly millions. And it’s impossible to dodge each one.


When you’re snorkelling, you’ve got a heightened awareness of your breathing. Every time I see one get unnervingly close – particularly those that float out of nowhere right in front of my mask – I feel my heart going faster and normal breathing turning to slightly panicked panting. The jellyfish density creeps upwards and upwards; I’m hitting them, they’re hitting me, and I start to push them away, palm to pulsating see-through umbrella.


It’s a genuinely extraordinary experience, and once I manage to fight the ingrained urges to scream and run away, I decide to take things a step further. The jellyfish wall is slightly patchier on the surface, so I take my lifejacket off and use it an impromptu boogie board. From there, I take a deep breath, and freedive downwards into the throbbing mass of stained transparent rubber. It should be a Room 101 moment, but it feels so odd that it’s utterly invigorating. The sting, it could be said, has been taken out of the situation.


Wanna try it yourself? David went to the Rock Islands and Jellyfish Lake with Sam’s Tours (