The shadowy figures emerge at first gradually from inside the hazy green veil—two and three at a time, then ten at time, then ten thousand. Within minutes the pulsating creatures become a living cloud. As though performing in a vast aquatic ballet, millions of graceful golden specters twirl and intertwine in seemingly choreographed unity. And then, as suddenly as they appeared, the tranquil ghosts begin to vanish. As dusk settles over their alien landscape, the figures fade silently, inexplicably away into the inky depths, awaiting the light of another day to guide encore performances.
Swimming with Mastigias papua etpisoni, also known as the golden jellyfish, is a surreal experience that conjures visions of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. However, the reality is even more interesting than science fiction. The unique creatures, stingless cousins of the common spotted jellyfish, are found only in a small group of isolated marine lakes in the tiny Western Pacific island nation of Palau. Having been protected from most predators by sea level rise and geologic serendipity, golden jellies have lost their ability to sting, making them benign to visitors who wish to witness their magical daily migration across the lake, following the sun’s path in search of microorganisms to feed upon.
Once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, like snorkeling in Jellyfish Lake, are a major reason nearly 200,000 tourists annually make the often lengthy, expensive and logistically complex journey to these remote spits of land at the western edge of the Caroline Island chain. Only a handful of Palau’s 250 islands are inhabited, and Internet speeds, even in the region’s population centers, approximate those of ancient dial-up modems. Geographic and technological isolation creates an aura of tranquility rarely found elsewhere in today’s ever-connected world. This refreshing remoteness, along with a bounty of world-class diving spots, marine biodiversity and unspoiled coastal landscapes, makes Palau a coveted bucket-list destination.
The Ngemelis Wall, also known as the Big Drop-Off, is one of Palau’s most popular diving destinations. The vertical wall plunges 300 meters, and is home to a dazzling array of sea life.
Postcard beaches and crystal blue water make Palau’s Rock Islands a major draw for tourists.
A hidden cave, one of many in the Rock Islands, is just big enough to sneak into with a skiff at low tide.
A rainbow assortment of shirts dries on a clothesline in a beachside backyard in Melekeok.
The capitol building of Palau sits atop a hill overlooking the ocean in Melekeok.
A brilliant blue sky serves as a stunning backdrop to ceremonial stone monoliths in Ngarchelong State on Babeldaob.
Water flowing from Palau’s tallest peak, Mt. Ngerchelchuus, spills over Ngardmau Waterfall.
Aimeliik Bai is a traditional meeting house in the Airai municipality on Babeldaob.
Oceanfront bungalows provide a secluded getaway for visitors at a private beach in Koror.
Golden hues paint the dusk sky as the sun dip below the horizon in Koror.
Check out all the high-resolution shots from my trip to Palau in my Flickr album.