Behind the Lens – Jellyfish Lake in Palau

jellyfish lake palau

One of the most incredible things I’ve ever done is gone swimming with jellyfish in Palau.

Palau is a small island country of approximately 20,000 people in the Pacific Ocean, east of the Philippines and north of Indonesia. It is also home to, what I believe, is the greatest diving in the world.

The most unique feature of Palau however, doesn’t require any SCUBA gear to experience: the jellyfish lake.
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Amature Traveler Podcast Interview – Micronesia

I am featured on this week’s Amateur Traveler Podcast where I talk about my trip to Micronesia. (Hence, the photo of Palau for today’s Daily Photo.)

The Amateur Traveler Podcast is one of my favorite travel podcasts along with the Indie Travel Podcast. Both podcasts focus on talking to real people, not just having tour guides and guide book editors on every episode.

If you are a regular podcast listener, I strongly suggest you subscribe. It is a very well done weekly podcast.

While I’m on the subject, Chris refers to a video I shot in Palau in the Jellyfish lake. For those who haven’t seen it before, here is the video

Final Thoughts on Palau

Palau Rocks. Pun intended.

I’m not sure why Palau works, but it does. If you look at other Pacific nations with similar populations, they are pretty much basket cases politically and economically. Palau has managed to create a country with a standard of living higher than its neighbors (save for Guam) and a stable government. To give you an idea of where Palau is at consider some of the following fun facts:

  • I saw three newspapers for sale in Palau. I only saw one in both the Marshalls and in FSM, which have populations 3-5x greater than Palau. All three papers weren’t dailies, but there were three papers nonetheless.
  • In the newspapers and on the public access TV channel I saw many ads for job openings. I can’t recall seeing one anywhere else in the Pacific.
  • The roads here are paved and well maintained. They even have the reflector thingies in the median.
  • Driving through this island, I saw most people with real houses. Even the few shacks I saw seemed to have plumbing coming out of them.
  • Palau is divided into 16 states. I thought the use of the term “state” would just be another way of differentiating different areas or districts. There actually seems to be a strong federalism in Palau, despite its small size. States issue their own license plates. You need diving permits issued by respective states, not from the Palau government. A park I went to had porta-pottys with “Property of Koror State Government” on the side, not the government of Palau. Some of the states have as few as 40 people.
  • Some Palau businessmen tried to start an airline to compete with Continental in Micronesia. They picked the worst time to start a new airline with fuel prices, but they gave it a shot.

My experience in Palau is pretty much around the urban area of Koror so I’m sure as you get farther away it gets less developed. Still, what Palau has achieved for a micro-state is impressive. They might not be a full blown first world country, but neither are they a third world country. I don’t’ know what the secret sauce is. It could be the luck of geography, being a beautiful place with reasonable flights from Japan. They people seem entrepreneurial, mores so than anywhere else in the Pacific.

There are some skeletons in the closet here. In the 80s, they had a president assassinated and one commit suicide. Overall, however, Palau has a lot to be proud of.


I always here of people saying “X has the best diving in the world” but I am not really sure what constitutes “best”. However you define “best diving”, Palau is probably near the top of the list.

I did my dives through Sam’s Tours, which seems to be the best dive shop in Palau. There are probably more dive shops in Palau than anyplace I’ve been so far. On each dive I had in Palau we ran into other dive groups. It is an odd experience to be swimming along 50 feet below the surface and run into another group of people going the opposite way.

I did a total of four dives in Palau and went snorkeling in Jellyfish Lake. On my dives, I saw manta rays, sharks, sea turtles, giant clams, tuna, enormous bump headed parrotfish, soft coral, hard coral, and schools upon schools of fish.

One thing we did that I had never done before was use reef hooks. A reef hook is just a piece of metal with a rope attached. You hook the metal on a dead piece of coral then float on the line like you were a kite in an area with strong current. We were at a corner of a reef wall with a strong current and were able to observe sharks moving around all the fish that were there. It was really fun.

What Palau is best known for are the jellyfish lakes. Before I arrived in Palau, I thought the lakes were in volcanic islands and were made out of freshwater. I was wrong on both counts. There are 55 lakes in the rock islands in Palau, five of which have jellyfish. “The” jellyfish lake is just the only one which is accessible to the public. All of the lakes are linked to the ocean. The limestone in the islands are porous which allows water to enter and leave the lake. However, the pours are so small that nothing else other than water can pass through. The jellyfish in the lakes got stuck there hundreds of thousands of years ago and, in the absence of any predators, have lost any nasty singer they once had. I was told they still have a mild sting, but I had hundreds of them touch me and didn’t feel anything. Hundreds of people snorkel there a day without incident.

Swimming with the jellyfish is sort of surreal. Normally when you are in the water, fish will move away from you. The jellyfish can’t see you and don’t know any better, so they will just bump into you. Also, jellyfish are….well….slimy. The first time one touched me I flinched sort of violently. After a while, I just got used to it.

The jellyfish are about the size of your fist or outstretched hand. Occasionally you would see tiny ones the size of your fingernail. They spend the day moving around following the sun across the lake. Their only source of food is the algae inside of them (called zooxanthellae).

My trip was part of a dive, but there were other tours there that just came for the jellyfish. A big boat of Chinese tourist was there and they all had life vests and Styrofoam boards to hang on to. In addition to the diving, there are lots of kayak and snorkeling tours for people who don’t dive. The water is clear enough that you probably don’t need to dive to see some spectacular coral.

On my second day of diving, we stopped on one of the beaches along the rock islands for lunch. The State of Koror has set up what is the equivalent of waysides in the rock islands for people to eat. Palau has really thought some stuff through. The rock island waysides is just one example. Like I saw in Kosrae, they have permanent mooring buoys near the reefs. That way you don’t have to drop anchor and knock off chunks of coral. Palau also seems pretty clean. I never noticed any litter, which is yet another data point in Gary’s Law:

Gary’s Law: The amount of litter you see in a place is inversely proportional to the amount of prosperity that place has.

I really enjoyed my time in Palau. I wish I could have done a bit more, but the weather didn’t cooperate the last few days. The food is pretty cheap compared to the rest of the Pacific, but not super cheap. The diving is a bit more expensive than some places. I liked it so much I even purchased a t-shirt here, which is something I hadn’t done on my trip so far. There are some high-end resorts, but you can also find some very affordable accommodations.

Oh yes, Palau also won the gold medal in baseball at the 2007 Pacific Games….

Micronesian Military

I want to post this before I leave Micronesia and forget about it.

While walking through the Guam airport I was struck by a large sign that listed the Micronesian servicemen and women who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I knew that Guam and CNMI had soldiers in the US military. While I was in American Samoa I was frequently reminded that American Samoa had the highest percentage of enlistment of any US territory or state. One man from American Samoa and Guam were killed while I was in both places and it made the headlines of the local papers.

What I didn’t know, and sort of shocked me, was that FSM, the Marshalls, and Palau were represented in the US Military. All three countries have no military and their citizens can join the US military. Many do because it offers them a better career path than anything they could have at home. It was not uncommon to see American flags and Army bumper stickers on the cars in all of these places.

Palau has had three men killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. On a per capita basis, they have probably made a greater sacrifice than any state or city in the US….and they are technically not even Americans. I’m sure no one in the US would really fault them if they wanted to sit this one out, especially considering most Americans have never heard of these places and don’t know they even exist.

It was just something I wanted to pass along…

Big Rock Candy Island

I’m not going to say too much because I want to save it for a much longer post with photos and video. I got to go diving in the rock islands of Palau today as well as snorkeling in the jellyfish lake. Swimming with jellyfish is a surreal experience. Especially thousands of them. It is easily one of my top experiences on this trip.

I should have several minutes of video of the jellyfish. I rented an underwater camera for the day and got my use out of it. I’m also going to be diving tomorrow and using enriched oxygen (Nitrox) for the first time. I’m should have my Nitrox certification as of tomorrow.

I did get to talk to the commanding officer of the US Naval mission to Palau (yes there is one). It is a group of Seabees who just do construction projects on the island and train Palauans to build things. I met a similar group from the Army Corps of Engineers on Majuro who was building a basketball court and fixing up an elementary school. I think the guys assigned to Palau have the #1 assignment of any branch of any military in the world.

I’ve been swimming all day and I’m tired and it’s raining.

Diving is the best way to meet smart, interesting women.

Oh, being a few feet from a giant manta ray kicks ass…


The internet here is like the opposite of the Majuro. In Majuro, the infrastructure on the island was horrible, but the actual connection to the net was OK assuming you could get one.

On Palau, there are internet cafes all over, but it feels as if the whole country is on the same dial-up connection. Everywhere is slow. I’d be willing to be the country has one crappy link to the outside and there is way more demand than there is bandwidth. No matter where I have tried to get on, I’ll have long spells where no data gets through, then there will be a torrent of data and everything will go quickly.

Uploading my photos is painful. I got a few of my photos from Majuro up, but the rest will have to wait until I have more time or until I get to Manila, where I’m assuming it will be much faster.

There is a great little walk-up restaurant on the street here. The English under the Chinese sign says “FRIED CHICKEN WITH SALT”. I’m going to eat there because I can think of nothing better than advertising fried food with salt.

I think everyone will love the Palau stamps I had to buy. It’s so……well, you’ll see. Remember, small countries view stamp sales to collectors as a form of revenue.

I’m going to rent a digital camera tomorrow for my dive and trip to Jellyfish Lake. I think it merits the expense. I will also probably be taking a kayaking trip to some of the rock islands on Sunday as well and maybe a short helicopter flight too. The islands are just that cool.

I also desperately need a hat. I lost my hat on Guam and it really makes a difference in the sun…especially with my head. I don’t know if Palau is usually hot or it just happened to be hot today, but this has been the warmest day I’ve experienced in the Pacific so far.

Palau 96940

I’m typing this at the Palau version of the Peach Pit, across the street from Palau High (Go Palau Spiders!)

For the third smallest country in the UN, Palau really has its act together. It is a smashingly beautiful place. It is clean. It is reasonably developed. They seem to realize where their bread is buttered and way out of their way to protect the reefs.

A longer summary of the former Trust Territories of the Pacific is coming, but suffice it to say I think Palau decided the other islands were an anchor, so they cut loose to be on their own.

Amy asked me a good question in light of my postcard offer: “Why does Palau use the US Postal Service?”

The answer is: they don’t.

When Palau became independent and the Trust Territories of the Pacific were dissolved, they signed the Compact of Free Association with the US. The compact let Palau be treated as a domestic destination for the purposes of postal delivery. Same as the FSM and the Marshall Islands. All three places use the US dollar as their currency and all of their postal systems rates mirror the USPS. That is why I can send postcards to people in the US at domestic rates from Palau, but you will still get a Palau stamp and postmark on it.

Tomorrow I go diving and snorkeling in Jellyfish Lake and get to eat lunch on a beach on the rock islands.

First Impressions of Palau

This is probably one of the nicest places in the Pacific. Save for Guam, easily the most developed country in Micronesia. Night and day compared to Majuro.

People here have houses, not shanties. There is furniture in the houses. I could tell because they had electricity, which also says something There are businesses and shops all over Koror. This is definitely a significant tourist draw.

The people of Palau seem more Asian than the rest of the Pacific, which makes sense considering they are closer to Asia than any other Pacific country.

I’m writing this on a wireless connection eating very cheap sushi. I think that says it all.

I’ve been very excited about Palau. I have budgeted more time here than any other place in Micronesia and have high expectations. So far, it is delivering.