Swimming with jellies magical


I don’t know who created the notion of the “bucket list,” but I love the idea. It says so much about us: our dreams, our idiosyncrasies.

For many, it’s the pursuit of an experience that is so at odds with our daily lifestyle that we think of certain goals as almost unattainable.

Maybe it’s a trip to an exotic location or an epic meal at a world-class five star restaurant. Maybe it’s getting onstage and starring in a community theater production.

Maybe it’s learning to play the piano or, for others, skydiving.

At the risk of over dramatizing it, a bucket list provides, in its own way, a tiny window into the soul.

In our case, a shared bucket list item for my wife, Lily, and me has been a visit to Palau, an emerald green bejeweled set of islands that sits millions of miles from everywhere in the western Pacific Ocean.

Why Palau? Because it is the home of Jellyfish Lake, a volcanic lake up in the hills that is home to millions of jellyfish, the nonstinging variety.

The idea is that you jump off a pier with your snorkeling gear and find yourself surrounded by teeming, pulsating jellyfish that create a tickling-like massage experience that may be unique on planet earth. That’s what we had read anyway.

For the life of me, I don’t know how I came to become so enamored with this idea.

As a kid, my family would travel to south Florida from time to time. It was here that I was introduced to the Portuguese Man O’ War, a beautifully translucent blue jellyfish with, what I led myself to believe, was an excruciating and mortal sting.

My father and I would walk along the beach, he with a piece of sharp driftwood in his hand and me with a look of abject horror, as we went out on a mission to kill these outwardly beautiful creatures, to literally pop them like a balloon, before they got us.

Later in life, both Lily and I would experience the painful, red striations that are the universal tattoo of the jellyfish that just added to their legend as things to be avoided at all costs.

Kind of like the plague. And yet, despite this uninterrupted history of freakish fear and terror at the thought of all things jellyfish, I not only begrudgingly tolerated Lily’s idea, but I embraced it with a passion. Life is so strange sometimes.

When we told folks of our plans to swim with the jellies, the reactions were both amusing and predictable. Most folks would instinctively curl their lips and wrinkle their noses and let out an extended “eeuww!”

Others would hurl epithets like “weird” or “creepy” or some colorful combination of both. Our neighbor, Jan, said (with just the slightest hint of exasperation), “Why don’t you just fill your bathtub with jello and jump in? Why go halfway around the world to do this?” OK, OK, I get it. It’s not for everyone!

Our visit to Jellyfish Lake was part of an all-day excursion to the southern region of Palau. It would be our boat with a guide and just the two if us. We would visit three or four snorkeling sites, apply soothing (and comical) ocean-bottom mud at what they call the “Milky Way,” and wander secluded beaches.

But, in our minds, this was just prelude to the unchallenged star attraction of all this, Jellyfish Lake. To get to the lake, we needed to hike up steep steps, climb over some volcanic rock, and then do the same down the steep path to this mysterious and secluded lake sitting in a totally uninhabited primeval jungle environment.

When we arrived, we were the only people there. We got our snorkeling gear straightened out, and we jumped in.

I expected, of course, to be immediately engulfed in a blizzard of jellyfish. But, we weren’t. The water on this day was bathtub warm, but seemingly without any visibility beyond our noses. And, no jellyfish! Joe, our guide, had told us that the jellies move around and are mysteriously affected by changes in the lunar cycle.

He urged us to press on and swim to the center of the lake. As we neared the center, everything changed. At first, it was just the spotting of a jellyfish and then two or three. The water cleared. And then, it was as if the curtain rose and we were permitted to enter a region of planet earth reserved for a select few.

The handful of jellyfish we had seen now turned to hundreds and then thousands. They were everywhere. And, they were so beautiful.

With the sun’s rays reaching down well below the lake’s surface, it was as if some of these jellyfish were in a celestial spotlight eager to perform.

There were different sizes, none much bigger than the spread of the fingers on one’s hand. They were domed on one end with their thick tendrils laying underneath. Imagine a large mushroom cap with stunted multiple stems reaching down below it. But, instead of the mundane earthiness of the mushroom, see instead a translucent figure that lets the sun shine through and which gives it a most definite feeling of lightness, delicacy and grace.

I was giddy and I was awestruck. I would reach out and gently touch these marine life wonders or cup them in my hands. They were soft, softer than a baby’s cheek.

They were tinged in a brownish orange, but you could see right through them. And, when we found ourselves surrounded by thousands of these lightly pulsating life forms, I felt like we were in the midst of an incredibly choreographed ballet that, in that moment, was just begging for a soundtrack.

Did we ever get so invaded that we felt the massage-like experience we had read about? Sadly, no.

But, what we saw and what we felt was nothing short of magical, even spiritual, that will forever be hard to replicate.

We’ll have to dig deeper into our bucket list for that.

Jeffrey Golland is a retired attorney living on the Isle of Palms. He and his wife have two sons, Jesse and Alex. Golland spends mornings on the beach with their Lab, Mojo, and pursues his interest in cooking, golfing, traveling and writing a blog.