JELLYFISH LAKE, Palau – When several million stingless golden jellyfish invite you to swim and snorkel with them – an invitation you will receive nowhere else in the world – it would be rather rude to refuse.
So a group of us don snorkels, masks and fins, and slip into the 28-degree water of Jellyfish Lake. What an amazing and unique experience to see and brush by clouds of these delicate, graceful creatures which have evolved in their landlocked lake over 20,000 years to have no need of poisonous stingers.
They range in size from as big as a large fist to as small as the tip of your little finger. And their population in the relatively small lake does indeed run between five and seven million.
What a start to this cruise on Lindblad Expeditions’ National Geographic Orion. We are off to explore mostly uninhabited islands in and around Indonesia’s fabled Spice Islands – although one of the inhabited ones gained a spot in history because of its nutmeg tree…and by being traded for Manhattan.
And what a cruise: Hiking, birding and cultural encounters ashore, snorkelling and diving in the surrounding seas with some of the world’s richest underwater flora and fauna, and all supported by knowledgeable lecturers, guides - and on this trip only, one of National Geographic’s most famous photographers.
With only 102 passengers, the ship offers the cruise equivalent of glamping: top-level accommodation and dining on board plus, as expedition leader Tim Soper puts it, “shifting into true expedition mode once we leave the ship in our Zodiacs.”
But don’t take my word for it. Come along with me as we cruise from Palau to Australia and decide for yourself.
Major airlines serve Koror, the capital of Palau, which is a three-hour, 1,700km flight southeast of Manila. To avoid arriving at some midnight hour, I flew via Taiwan. (Check Circle Pacific fares which are often cheaper than return flights and allow you a more varied itinerary.)
DAY ONE: There’s nothing like visiting a country to bring its history to life. For example, dot-on-the-map Palau was first colonized by Spanish explorers. Spain then sold these Micronesian islands to Germany, which lost them to Japan after losing the First World War – which in turn lost them to the U.S. after losing the Second World War.
Yet all four countries contributed – and especially in the case of the U.S. continue to contribute – to Palau’s development and even culture. Although Palau has been an independent republic since 1994, it continues to use the U.S. dollar as its currency. Most tourists come from both the U.S. and Japan.
It’s your typical tropical, relaxed, dreamlike paradise – palm tree beaches, air and ocean temperatures around 28 degrees day and night almost all year, turquoise lagoons, snorkelling and diving.
DAY TWO: After our jellyfish encounter on Mecherar Island, local boat operators take us around mushroom-shaped karst limestone islands, large and small, where tidal and microorganism erosion have worn away the rocky undersides.
In the afternoon we launch the kayaks to paddle peacefully among the islands to get a closer look at the “mushroom” undersides and vegetation, finishing the day with a snorkel over the corals.
DAY THREE: During our day at sea, we meet some of our guide-lecturers, including David Doubilet who has specialized in underwater photography for the National Geographic for 43 years. Throughout the cruise naturalists, cultural/historical specialists and photographers provide fascinating insights to enrich what we are seeing, doing and learning.
In one of the lectures we learn improved ecological management has increased the number of fish species here over the past decade to 374 from 285.
DAY FOUR: Raja Ampat, Indonesia, comprises 1,500 small islands, cays and shoals. We anchor near Wayag Island – so far off the beaten track that immigration officials have to travel five hours by boat to reach us to clear the ship.
At 10km north of the equator, the air and ocean temperature stays between 27 and 30 day and night. Divers do day and night dives, others snorkel off a deserted white sand beach into a variety of colourful corals, multi-coloured tropical fish and giant clams. Those who prefer to stay dry peer into the undersea wonderland from a glass-bottom boat.
“There are more species of beautiful reef fish and gorgeous corals here in the Coral Triangle than in any other part of the world,” says David Cothran, photo instructor.
In the afternoon, the Zodiacs finish exploring, round a corner of the island and find sunset cocktails and nibblies being served on the beach, ahead of a seafood barbecue dinner back on deck featuring 80 different delicacies prepared by executive chef Lothar Reiner and his kitchen crew.
DAYS FIVE and SIX: We snorkel from a platform anchored between two Zodiacs and many snorkellers declare, “this is the best snorkel site yet.”
We see schools of Thread Fin Anthias and other fish, large and tiny, some swimming in an orderly flow, others all over the place – normal or bright neon colours, stripes, spots; groups of tiny fish nibbling coral, feeding within the waving polyps, all varieties and shapes. The fish are matched only by the varieties, designs and colours of underwater flora: the corals, sponges, sea whips and many more.
Tiny jellyfish are so translucent a camera’s autofocus doesn’t respond to them. A sharp-eyed diver spots a pygmy seahorse the size of a grain of rice. Over there, peeping out of a coral, is Nemo (a clownfish, aka sub anemone fish, aka sub damsel fish). Giant schools of barracuda swim by.
It’s fun to just float, head down, in one spot, to watch fish emerge from under rocks and rock crevices, to see fish being “cleaned” – having parasites removed – by smaller, “cleaner” fish. Dappled sunlight and shadows mark the coral wall which falls away into deep water changing from light to dark blue.
During an afternoon Zodiac exploration, schools of hundreds of tiny silver or blue fish speed jump out of the water for a fraction of a second, almost like a cloud of large insects. A variety of colourful tropical fish, and even a small grey reef shark, swim around the coral just centimetres below the surface.
High above us an osprey swoops at a young sea eagle, which does a mid-air flip at the last minute to try to escape.
Just above the waterline, our guide naturalist Richard White spots a carnivorous green pitcher plant, about 10cm long and indeed shaped like an elongated pitcher. In a neighbouring Zodiac, Palau-based guide and biologist/cultural specialist Ron Leidich finds an even larger specimen: close to 15cm.
“Because nutrients are scarce, this plant has adapted by attracting and then digesting insects,” White says. “A sweet liquid in the bottom of the pitcher attracts the insects and the slippery sides prevent them from getting back out. The pitcher even has a lid, which closes when it rains to prevent the liquid from getting diluted.”
A larger relative of the pitcher plant, able to “eat” mice and even small rats, once won “plant of the year” at the famous Chelsea Flower Show in London.
We are delighted to see so many natural wonders up close, to have the good fortune to be in such a remote area and have the place to ourselves to explore.
DAYS SIX to NINE: “For more than three centuries, Banda Neira (which usually doesn’t even show up on a map) was the centre of major contention between the native people and the Portuguese, Dutch and English,” naturalist Tom Ritchie briefs us.
“Thousands of people were murdered, killed in military actions and enslaved over the possession and harvest of a small endemic species of tree found only here in Banda – the nutmeg. Along with the mace wrapping around the nut, it was perhaps once the most valuable spice in the world, prized for its ability to preserve and cure food, especially meat, in the days when there was no refrigeration or canning.”
We go ashore on several islands to meet the locals in Yenwaupnor, Kokas, Banda Neira and Banda Run villages (Run was traded by the Dutch to the British for Manhattan in 1667). They put on welcoming and farewell cultural dances. Children get time off school to show us around.
We walk along the streets with cats, dogs, chickens and goats, see colourful colonial architecture, sample the local spices, visit Dutch and Japanese fortification ruins, hike into the hills where our guide kicks off his flip-flops to climb a tree to cut down some coconuts to refresh us. We feel privileged to briefly share even a tiny bit of the lives of local inhabitants.
DAY 10: Once again we are swimming off uninhabited beaches. We have another “best snorkelling day yet” between two of the five tiny atolls of the Lucipara Islands, in the middle of the Banda Sea – the tops of undersea mountains rising almost 2km from the seabed.
I go snorkelling and just hang off the shelf in the slight current where the coral drops off to the very deep ocean floor, watching the fish – and three turtles (or the same turtle three different times) – swim by. I am often surrounded by clouds – thousands – of orange (Anthia) and also blue fish (Fusilier) smaller than my baby finger.
DAYS 11 to 13: One more day of deserted island beachcombing, snorkelling and diving, one more day at sea and we end our trip in Darwin – reflecting on how lucky we have been to get up close and personal with such remote and magical islands and their inhabitants both above and below the water.