Catch Up, Part 2: Michelle in Palau
Two weeks ago, I left Sydney, and flew to Cairns, Australia for a day of meetings and scouting, then on to Guam, for a ridiculous 13 hour layover, and finally to Palau, a tiny island nation in the northwestern Pacific. Next April, the newly renamed National Geographic Orion will end one voyage and begin another there, so I went to meet with tour operators, hoteliers and guides. During the week of that trip, I was able to get out in the islands to explore on a couple of days, in between my meetings and work. I went kayaking at Long Lake, in the Rock Islands of Koror State, and saw newly hatched spotted eagle ray pups, incredible tropical vegetation and some lovely new birds. I snorkeled on the outer reef, at the edge of German Channel, seeing so many familiar tropical fish and invertebrates. I got to see a giant carved stone “wheel” of Yapese money.
I also managed to snorkel in the famous Jellyfish Lake. This saltwater lake has been isolated from the surrounding lagoon since the last Ice Age, for approximately 16,000 years. In that time, the jellies of the genus Mastigias that are present in the lake, have evolved to be essentially “sting-less”. Rather than catching their prey (since there’s no prey to catch…) with long, nematocyst-armed tentacles, these jellyfish harbor tiny algal cells known as zooxanthellae, which photosynthesize to produce food, both for themselves and for the jellies. This strategy, along with the ability to reproduce asexually, has allowed literally millions of these softball-sized jellies to flourish in the lake.
So, my guide, Ron, and I donned our snorkel gear, and kicked out along the eastern edge of the lake. It was still pretty early morning, so this shore was in shadow, leaving a sharp demarcation line between where the jellies were, and where they were not (they like the sun…). Ron thought we might have to swim all the way to the far end of the lake to find an aggregation of jellies, but a recent population explosion meant that we found jellies almost immediately. At first, they were gathered below us, a pale orange shoal maybe 20 feet down. Then, they moved towards the surface of the lake, and we were in their midst. For nearly an hour, I was completely surrounded by, immersed in and face-to-mesoglea with, millions of small, soft pillows, pulsing with orange light. The tiny ones pulsed rapidly, while the larger ones pulsed almost in time to my breathing. It was completely otherworldly, one of those rare experiences that I cherish. The jellyfish are incredibly fragile, so one’s motion has to be gentle and minimal. No splashing, struggling, hard kicking or strong arm movements allowed, or the jellies would be torn to shreds. Many people choose to use flotation to keep their motion to a minimum, but I preferred not. Just floating in salty water, rising and falling with each breath, watching these bizarre and beautiful creatures move.
I’m back in Sydney now, and back to “real” work… Enjoy these photos, they were all taken by Ron Leidich, who generously shared them with me.