Koror — For Instagram or YouTube travelers, a trendy paradise would be Jellyfish Lake, or Ongeim'l Tketau, as it’s referred to by the Palauans. The dreamy destination was made popular by articles in the New York Times, BBC and National Geographic. Jellyfish Lake was becoming too popular. Tourists swarmed the lake with sunscreen leaving UV chemicals in the sediment and the introduction of some nonnative species into the lake, causing it to close in 2016. Almost three years later, the lake is now open again for both Palauans and tourists to enjoy.
Department of Conservation and Law Enforcement, however, claimed Jellyfish Lake was never officially closed. “The Koror State Government did not close it,” said Dora Benhart, outreach officer. “Because of the El Nino and climate changes in 2016, it effected the way jellyfish were surviving in the lake. It wasn’t because of any activity within the lake, but because of the climate change. The number of jellyfishes slowly declined.”
Benhart said the government did not see the need to officially close it down because there were no more visitors going to the lake. “During that time, the traditional chiefs and leaders exercised their right to close it; however, the site is state-managed and it wasn’t officially closed. That was just misinformation that went viral,” she added.
For Benhart, the Jellyfish Lake is an almost metaphysical experience — a perfect place to reflect within. “My favorite memory of Jellyfish Lake is the tranquility with the species. When I’m in the lake and immersed in the water and there is no noise, it’s like I’m in a different planet,” Benhart said. “It’s like being among the stars, like being in a different world with this amazing species. For me, being in Jellyfish Lake is like finding a way back to myself. It’s a place to explore oneself, to begin to question life, the beginning of things, or how to improve oneself. It can inspire you to be who you want to be—to be the best you can be.”
He Jellyfish Lake is part of the Koror State Rock Island Southern Lagoon, a UNESCO World Heritage site and is famous for its golden jellyfish population. The lake was once home to 10 million to 20 million nonstinging golden jellyfish, hitting 30 million at its peak in 2005. The number stabilized to around five million from 2007 until there were scarcely any medusa seen during the drought crisis in 2016.
In 2017 study, the Coral Reef Research Foundation noted that Palau’s dramatic increase in visitors to 100,000 per year—and most of whom visit Jellyfish Lake— caused a decline in the health of the lake. Sampling for sunscreen chemicals in 2014 indicated the presence of oxybenzone (BP-3), a compound that is extremely common in personal care products, including sunscreens.
The lake reopened in January this year as thousands of new golden jellyfish have appeared in the lake. "Ongoing monitoring conducted by the Coral Reef Research Foundation indicated that the jellyfish populations were now rebounding after the declines that were a result of the drought conditions experienced throughout Palau in 2016," said a government statement issued by Palau's Koror State announcing the lake's reopening.
Benhart said Palauans are excellent protectors of the environment and that others can learn from Palauan traditions. “You got to love what you have. Love what you have in order to care for it and nurture it,” she said.
Based on the current conditions and the continued recovery of the site, it was determined that Ongeim’l Tketau had sufficient numbers of jellyfish to provide visitors with a quality experience.
David Orrukem, chairman of Palau Conservation Society, is proud of the destination and hopes that more people can appreciate it. “Jellyfish Lake has always been conserved for Koror people, but we now share it with the tourists,” Orrukem said. “My best memories there are swimming freely with the jellyfish. There are jellyfish out in the wild that can sting and be dangerous, but our jellyfish are peaceful. It’s an amazing feeling to float naturally with millions of jellyfish.”
Orrukem believes that closing the lake is an excellent reminder of Palauan conservation values. “Conservation is part of being Palauan. It’s embedded in us,” he said. “Values begin at home—from our fathers, our mothers, our grandparents. Getting ready in the morning, we try to save water for the next person. When (harvesting) plants, we make sure not to take everything or to plant some more for the next time. Even when it comes to our fish and our ocean—we have certain seasons for certain fishing.”
Benhart said Palauans are excellent protectors of the environment and that others can learn from Palauan traditions. “You got to love what you have. Love what you have in order to care for it and nurture it,” she said. “If you don’t love it, you won’t take the extra step to take care of it. We love our place. Working in conservation, we love our place and want to maintain it for the future and we want to be able to say we live in our own space and our children of tomorrow can have the same experience of what we have now.”
Orrukem is proud of his people’s awareness of the environment and hopes others can be inspired to conserve the planet. “Palauans even have a word for conservation, which is ‘bul’,” he said. “When traditional leaders feel like there is a certain livestock or crop that needs to be conserved, they put a bul on that, even if it’s on personal or family property. You can’t do anything about it until the conservation comes up to par. We use bul to conserve plants, animals, the ocean. Bul is embedded in our lives. Going back to our traditional methods and practices, it’s in us. It can be difficult to have a balance of economy and environment. Sometimes it’s hard to live in a cultural, traditional way. It’s difficult to take the conservationist part of Palauan out of us. Everything goes by nature.”
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