Swimming with jellyfish, underwater WWII machine-gunning and coral colours are just some of the Pacific island of Palau's gems
The words on the signpost back on the jetty echoed in my head. That wasn’t exactly what I wanted to read just before swimming into a pulsating mass of ten million jellyfish in Micronesia.
I dipped my mask beneath the surface, scanning the inky blue for any signs of gelatin activity. Nothing; so I pushed bravely on, leaving behind the shadows of the surrounding jungle to head out into the centre of the lake where I had been told its residents would be waiting in the sun-filled waters.
And then it came: my first jellyfish, emerging from the gloom like a ghostly parasol opening and shutting in a gentle, pulsing rhythm. I swam neatly round it, and straight into the path of another, which I just managed to dodge by a few centimetres. Before I knew it, an entire flotilla was approaching, closing in on me from all sides, and yet still I twisted and contorted my body as if in some bizarre ritual dance, desperate to avoid brushing against one and testing the definition of ‘virtually stingless’.
It couldn’t have lasted. Their fleet was too strong and I’m not that flexible. My only option was to relax. So, fighting every instinct to thrash around wildly and front-crawl my way back to the jetty, I stopped writhing and let myself drift through the gelatinous soup. It was, without doubt, the most surreal 20 minutes of my life.
I’ve never felt truly at ease in the water – probably something to do with not knowing what’s lurking beneath the surface ready to slither past me, wrap me in tentacles or embed itself in my foot.
So it was safe to say I wasn’t entirely comfortable in my new surroundings.
Earlier that morning I had listened like a model pupil as Clayton, my guide, explained the creation of Palau’s ‘Jellyfish Lake’ – how changes in the sea level millions of years ago formed these marine enclaves and how, over time, the stranded jellyfish lost their stings due to the lack of predators. But then, just ten seconds before I was to jump off the jetty, the ‘virtually stingless’ sub-clause had caught my eye, and my gung-ho attitude had vanished. I knew that if just one jellyfish had managed to defy evolution and cling onto its sting, sod’s law dictated I would swim straight into its path.
But there was little I could do to avoid the gelatinous hordes. Some skimmed past with the lightest of touches, while others bounced into me only to ricochet off in slow motion, regain their rhythmic composure and pulsate away in another direction. A few hovered in the palm of my hand, twirling and pirouetting. It was like being in the middle of a silent underwater ballet – and there was no shortage of dancers.
Soon I was so enveloped I could hardly move for fear of damaging their delicate frames. I exhaled and sank down beneath the throng. Looking up at the surface, I could just make out the fringes of jungle against the blue sky, and between us a thousand translucent cauliflowers dancing in the sun.
“So, no stings then?” asked Clayton, grinning as we paddled slowly back to land. “Not even a tingle,” I replied. “In fact, that was like having the softest massage imaginable.” I looked back over my shoulder to see the now-deserted lake shimmering in the South Pacific light. Perhaps even more incredible than the jellyfish themselves was that I had just experienced one of the world’s most spectacular wildlife phenomena practically alone. A simple wooden sign was all that existed to alert visitors – no queues, no turnstiles, not even a meagre postcard stall.
The next morning I was back to my apprehensive self. During some over-zealous guidebook research before breakfast I’d spotted a reference to Palau’s saltwater crocodile population; and there I was, sitting in a kayak that could be overturned by the mere flick of a scaly tail. I was sharing my boat with Jake, an enthusiastic young Palauan who, judging by the audible chewing and projectiles of red spit shooting into the sea, had an unhealthy betelnut habit.
I approached the subject of crocs as casually as I could, hoping for reassurance it was just local legend. But no; excitedly, Jake whipped out newspaper clippings describing the Indo-Pacific crocodile that was caught in these waters in 1976.
“Twenty-two feet long, and 386 pounds!” he shouted, revealing his betelnut-stained teeth. “They found a flashlight and a fisherman in his belly. But don’t worry,” he said quickly, as I gazed at him in horror. “They’re nocturnal, and you hardly ever see them nowadays. In fact, I’ve only ever seen one and I’ve lived here all my life.” He waved his arms at our surroundings. “Besides, how can you worry about crocodiles when you’ve got all this to take in?”
And he was right. We were gliding through a glassy lagoon so still and so clear that it felt like we were flying, the shadow of our kayak skimming the surface of the white sea bed a few metres below. Around us, sheer islands rose sharply from the water, covered in a dense, green tangle of bushy trees, shrubs and dangling lianas.
These are the Rock Islands of Palau – over 400 limestone pinnacles that harbour the last untouched forests of the Pacific. The action of the waves has eroded severe undercuts in the limestone rock, giving the islands distinctive, mushroom-like shapes, while the demolition forces of nature have also created a baffling network of caves, lakes, archways and tunnels. Fortunately, Jake knew his way around and directed us towards what looked like a small cave.
“You’re in luck,” he said. “The water’s only low enough to pass through this tunnel for four days each lunar cycle, and today is one of them. Now duck!” So we floated through the shallow tunnel and out the far side into another of Palau’s lakes.
Hazy and humid, there was something eerily beautiful about this spot. The sounds of the forest echoed slightly in the heavy air as if someone had put a giant lid over the island; insects buzzed furiously, while fruit bats flitted from shrub to tree. A rough, growling noise came from the dense foliage as we slid past – according to Jake, just the call of a Micronesian pigeon. I wasn’t convinced – Trafalgar Square’s pigeons don’t sound so croc-like. But Jake was already enthusing about the underwater marvels.
“It’s the coral that’s so special here,” Jake said, grabbing his snorkel. I picked my way out to the deeper water, to the edge of a vast coral garden filled with bubble-gum colours: bright pinks, neon yellows, baby blues. But it didn’t seem vulgar or brash – this was nature, a vibrant underwater salad waving gently in the current.
I spent a happy afternoon lying back in the kayak as Jake regaled me with crocodile-free Palauan facts, and paddled us in and out of bat-filled caves and past an endless montage of jungle-capped islands. As I leant over the side of the boat watching a spindly shoal of needle-fish dart through the water, I found myself staring down the barrel of a hefty cannon.
In such a tranquil setting, it’s easy to forget the devastation that Palau suffered during the Second World War. Occupied by the Japanese since 1914, the main islands were heavily fortified, but a series of fierce battles between the US and the Japanese virtually wiped out the principal settlements. “When the US came,” said Jake, “they attacked by air and sank no less than 60 of the Japanese fleet.”
On a nearby island Jake led me to an abandoned Japanese outpost where soldiers kept watch for a US landing. A miniscule concrete block with postage-stamp-sized windows hid in the forest, overlooking a narrow channel of water. For a few Japanese soldiers, this claustrophobic cube was home; a pile of old clam shells and cracked beer bottles lay outside the door, evidence of their occupation. Inside was a more poignant reminder of their presence – a faint scrawl on the wall, a message for a soldier’s family to let them know he was thinking of them.
The sunken cannon is not the only martial relic lying incongruously among the marine life of Palau. The next day I sat in the rusting cockpit of a Japanese ‘Zeke’ fighter-plane making machine-gun noises at the bemused fish. This fighter is just one of a number of planes, destroyers and army cargo ships that lie scattered like discarded Dinky toys around Palau’s shores.
Having fulfilled my Top Gun fantasies, Clayton whisked me off to my final marine challenge. As the boat bounced its way out of the mirrored lagoons of the inner Rock Islands towards the sweeping curve of the reef, I hugged myself with excitement. My aquaphobic tendencies had miraculously vanished – even Clayton’s allusions to sharks didn’t have me hyperventilating.
Our boat chugged to a standstill over a shallow reef, and Clayton proudly boomed: “Welcome to the Big Drop-Off!” I had heard divers discussing this site in reverent tones; Jacques Cousteau himself declared it the best wall-dive in the world. But, luckily for me, snorkellers don’t miss out. The Big Drop-Off is just as spectacular, if not even more dramatic, from the surface.
I donned my flippers and hurtled headlong into the sea. The party of angelfish I’d unwittingly broken up flashed past my eyes in a strobe display of black and yellow stripes. As they cleared, a lawn of sea anemones and lettuce-like fan corals appeared, surrounded by throngs of psychedelic fish shimmering like silver leaves.
The Big Drop-Off – with that name I could have guessed what was coming, but when the reef wall suddenly plunged away below me into 200m of nothing,I was completely unprepared. Instead, vertigo kicked in as I dangled over the abyss. Arms and flippers flailing, I scrambled back to the edge of the sheer reef wall and collected myself as Clayton beckoned me to swim with the current along the wall – to my right, a conveyor belt of sculptural corals and territorial fish; on my left, an ethereal expanse of blue.
I became obsessed with staring at the blurry shadows moving below me. They were the stars of the show – I just had to be patient and wait for them to make their grand entrance. First came the barracuda, slicing through the water like steely silver torpedoes. Then the flapping of a hawksbill turtle hauling itself through the curtain of blue. In contrast, an eagle-spotted ray flew gracefully past me with a single beat of its wings. Even the Big Drop-Off’s resident Napoleon wrasse put in a brief appearance, wobbling like a tipsy sergeant major.
And then there were the sharks. I could hear my heart pounding as I watched a large silver-tipped reef shark below me, gliding along the colourful marine wall like a self-assured playboy. Even further below, another circled idly, aware of his serious sea-cred in this bustling corner of Palau. I dangled above, smiling to myself.
This was the marine equivalent of people-watching on the St Tropez promenade: shoals of identikit models all wearing the latest outfit; impossibly beautiful individuals gliding nonchalantly; and the occasional superstar cruising past, only too conscious that everyone around was stopping to stare.
And me? I was the unfortunate blot on the social landscape – the awkward-looking tourist in last season’s colours gazing on in awe at the beauty around me.