Palau: A Living Eden

 By Suzanne Rodriguez
          Palau: A Living Eden Filled with Nature’s Novelties       

Ever wonder what it’s like to hang out with aliens from another planet? It’s easy enough to find out: just spend an afternoon snorkeling in Palau’s Jellyfish Lake. The experience of floating in backlit, hazy-green water while surrounded by millions of pale-orange, delicate, and balloonish-looking creatures is beautiful, mesmerizing—and decidedly unearthly.

Officially known as Ongeim’l Tketau, Jellyfish Lake is located on tiny, uninhabited Mecherchar Island, one of Palau’s nearly 600 Rock Islands. About 12 acres in size, the landlocked lake was formed between 12,000 to 15,000 years ago, at the end of the most recent ice age. When ocean levels rose, filling depressions in the island’s limestone composition, Golden Jellyfish became trapped in the new saltwater lake. Today about five million Golden Jellyfish inhabit the lake (another one million Moon Jellyfish reside at much lower depths but are rarely seen by humans).

Author snorkeling with jellies

Over time the jellies have evolved with such tiny nematocysts—stinging cells—that their sting is now imperceptible to humans, which makes it safe to snorkel in their midst. Ranging from the size of a large coin to a grapefruit, the graceful creatures engage in a ceaseless, pulsating dance, slowly moving across the lake as they chase the sun’s shifting light. When they bump into a swimming human, they quickly veer away and resume their dance. The experience is so unique that it served as a reward for two separate challenges of the television series Survivor (Survivor: Palau in 2005 and Survivor: Fans vs. Favorites in 2008). 

But as unique as Jellyfish Lake might be, it’s only one of countless “unearthly” wonders in Palau. According to National Geographic, the island nation, about 800 miles southwest of Guam, is “as lush as any paradise of our imagination … a Living Eden where all is not what it seems—a home to a world of novelties concocted by nature unconstrained.” 

Among Palau’s other novelties are the small, lushly green, and largely uninhabited Rock Islands. Made of limestone with coral origin, most are undercut at their base by eons of wave action and nibbling by primitive mollusks called chitons. The undercutting can be so extensive that many islands stick out of the water like giant mushrooms perched atop stems.

Rock Island—Photo by Kevin Davidson

A boat excursion through the Rock Islands is a constant adventure. Schools of bright-colored fish feed in reef shallows, exotic birds nest in high trees, white-sand beaches beckon passers-by to pause and laze around, caves filled with stalactites beg for exploration.

Sometimes a half dozen islets form a circle, with channels wide enough for a boat to enter into the center of a perfectly still, bright turquoise mini-lagoon. One island (Ulong) contains ancient rock paintings. Others hold rusting relics from World War II. Yet another holds giant stone money carved by ancient seafaring visitors from Yap who never returned home. Maybe they just found the Rock Islands too beautiful to leave!

Aside from the jellyfish, my favorite Rock Island destination is The Milky Way. Our boat pulled into a protected shallow cove where clear water atop milk-white sediment mirrored the sky. Mostly pulverized white limestone and a bit of mollusk waste, the sediment is known for its wondrous powers of skin-rejuvenation. Everyone aboard was in a bathing suit, so when the crew hauled up buckets of soft, creamy sediment, we plastered it all over our faces, hair, and exposed body parts. When it began to dry I jumped in the water, swam myself clean, and—having undergone a natural treatment in the world’s most beautiful spa—climbed back aboard with freshened skin and shiny hair.

Perhaps the greatest of all Palau’s wonders lie beneath the sea’s surface. Thanks to crystal-clear waters and a dedicated national effort to preserve its extensive coral reef system, Palau is a diver’s paradise. More than 550 species of hard and soft corals, 300 sponge species, and 1300 species of reef fish reside here. Among them are the reclusive Chambered Nautilus, the endangered Hawksbill turtle, and the rare giant clam.

With at least 50 dive sites, each day offers a new underwater adventure. Explore the stalactite-laden rooms in Chandelier Cave. Brave the Big Drop-Off—the 1000-foot, coral-imbedded drop called the world’s best dive by none other than Jacques Cousteau. Photograph reef sharks and barracuda at the famed Blue Corner. Enjoy the riot of small, colorful fish at Ngerchong Coral Gardens. Or dive among the 40 World War II plane and ship wrecks that have long since become part of the marine ecosystem.

Man and Manta — Photo by Kevin Davidson

Palau has plenty of dazzling wonders on dry land, too. Palau’s largest island, 127-square-mile Babeldaob, possesses a pristine interior that has changed little over the centuries and is home to many animal species found nowhere else on earth. Until recently this island was nearly impossible for visitors to explore, but, thanks to the recent completion of a 53-mile highway encircling the island, that situation has changed. The interior remains difficult to access, but there are plenty of wonders to discover on and near Babeldaob’s  coast.

The Ngchesar Jungle River Boat Cruise eco-adventure takes you on a 5-mile round trip along the isolated, mangrove-edged Ngerdorch River and out to the ocean. Along the way you might catch sight of a pretty Palauan Fruit Dove, a pin-wheeling fruit bat, a leaping Archer Fish, or locals collecting big mangrove crabs for dinner, and you’re practically guaranteed to see salt water crocodiles.

A Babeldaob “must-see?” The eerily beautiful Ngarchelong Stone Monoliths located at the island’s northern tip. There, on a large open meadow with a stunning view of the ocean beyond, 40 mysterious stone monoliths, dating back 2000 or more years, stand guard. A few have faces, and their sizes vary (some weigh as much as 5 tons). Nobody really knows when or how these stones came to be, but to the Palauans they are imbued with sacred meaning.

And after you’ve spent time here, sampling the novelties of this emeralad-green Living Eden, you’ll understand why they feel that way.

From the Sky — Photo by Kevin Davidso.