It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life—swimming among millions of golden jellyfish, so many that you couldn’t avoid bumping into them with your bare skin. But what should normally be an excruciatingly painful experience (and if you’ve ever been stung by a jelly you know what I mean) wasn’t. On a tiny island in Palau is one of most famous snorkeling sites in the world: Jellyfish Lake. And if there is one place you need to see before you kick the bucket, this is it.
But first let me answer the most common question I hear about Palau: Where is it? The Republic of Palau is an island nation in Micronesia, located about 500 miles east of the Philippines (Google Earth it). It’s one of the world’s youngest and smallest sovereign states, but most people know it as one of the top scuba diving destinations in the world.
For Americans, vacationing in Palau is a breeze—everyone speaks English, the currency is the U.S. dollar, they drive on the right, you don’t need a visa, and the electric grid is 110v. Think of it as Hawaii, but far prettier, far less crowded, and far more exotic.
But it’s also far. Getting here from the states is no picnic. You typically have to fly to Hawaii, then another 7 hours to Guam, then a few more hours to Palau. It’s two full days of flying to get there and back, so I highly recommend you stay a few days longer than planned: You won’t want to leave anyway.
Back to Jellyfish Lake. Every day these millions of lake-locked jellyfish migrate horizontally across the surface, and because they’ve lost their ability to sting, it’s perfectly safe to swim among them. I would fly to Palau for a single day just to experience this natural phenomenon—it’s that special. But there’s so much more to see and do in Palau that you’ll need at least a week to experience it all.
During my visit in September I experienced something different every day, each as mind-blowing as the next: snorkeling around a sunken Japanese zero; exploring caves filled with bats and rusty remnants of World War II; kayaking through pristine mangrove-lined lagoons and enormous caves; hiking through thick jungles filled with exotic creatures; and driving all-terrain-vehicles on insanely muddy trails (that was a hoot).
Even if you never dipped a toe in Palau’s waters, I can pretty much promise you that you’ll have one of the best vacations of your life here. But if you enjoy snorkeling or scuba diving, Palau will rock your world.
I worked as a professional scuba instructor in Maui and Thailand and have logged more than 1000 dives, but my first dive in Palau at Blue Corner was the single best dive experience of my life. It reminded me of those Sea Monkey ads I’d see as a kid in comic books—technicolored corals and sea creatures as far as the eye could see.
And I rarely even used my fins—most dives in Palau are drift dives, where the current slowly carries you over acres and acres of ever-changing coral beds brimming with marine life: manta rays, sharks (the non-man-eating types), barracuda, moray eels, glowing sea anemones, giant clams the size of beach balls, and schools of fish so vast that you can captures thousands of them with a single click of your camera.
It was like swimming in the world’s fanciest aquarium, or filming an episode of National Geographic; it was an experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
Okay, I’m sold. Now what?
If you want to start planning your trip to Palau, the easiest way to get all the information you need is at visit-palau.com, which is run by the Palau Visitors Authority. I flew Continental Airlines without a single delay or problem, and stayed at the beautiful—and surprisingly affordable—Palau Pacific Resort, which I highly recommend.
Once you arrive, there are numerous adventure outfits that will arrange your diving, snorkeling, boat tours, kayak tours, etc. Four that I highly recommend are Sam’s Tours, Splash, Discovery Tour Airai, and Fish ‘n Fins, which also offers liveaboard dive trips as well.
One thing that pleasantly surprised me about Palau is that Americans are by far the minority here. It seemed to be mostly Japanese and Korean tourists, and the cuisine at the resorts reflected that, so even dining at the buffet was an enlightening adventure (Fermented soybeans anyone?).
And for anyone who’s even thought about getting dive certified, do it. Having a dive certification card is your passport to an exotic and alien world that you can float through. I strongly recommend that you start your certification classes here in the states, then do your final certification dives in the tropics of Palau rather than the freezing California coast. Go to PADI.com to find your nearest dive center.