Close Encounters With Jellyfish

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
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Flag of Palau  ,
Wednesday, February 29, 2012

You're never really in the neighbourhood when it comes to Palau but since we were now in Manila avoiding the rains in Malaysia we thought it might be a good idea to drop in on one of the smallest countries in the world. And believe it or not the single biggest motivating factor for making this detour was a lake that is reputedly filled with non-stinging jellyfish (at least that's what I told DH who has huge jello-phobia issues; they actually do sting but apparently it's imperceptible). Everybody else goes to Palau for the world class scuba diving... or they just got on the wrong plane.Our adventure started with booking our flights since, outside of Japan and Taiwan based airlines, only United (formerly Continental) flies to the island trifecta of Palau, Yap, and Guam and they don't go there very often so it takes a lot of deft maneuvering to link them all together.

And in addition to infrequent scheduling, having this flight monopoly allows United to pick the departure and arrival times which all range between 1:00am and 4:00am. With all of the flying we have done I've never seen anything quite like it- in addition to high prices and enforced sleep deprivation, these bizarre flights also forced us to book two hotels in two different countries on the same night for each of our travel days. We never did get an explanation as to why the airline did this (because they can??).

With all these hurdles, DH was convinced that we were being given signs from above that Palau just wasn't supposed to happen.

Things didn't improve at all on the day we were supposed to fly out of Manila. In addition to a laptop that wouldn't shut down and a bellhop (who had the only key to the luggage lockup) who went missing, unbeknownst to us, Manila was hosting a Catholic religious festival all around the area of our hotel- for anyone who knows the Philippines, they know that there is no such thing as a small Catholic gathering. All major arteries were clogged to the point of standstill and the taxis we had been tripping over earlier were completely absent. We were finally able to flag down a gangsta style taxi dude who was looking for a premium for the airport run- with zero options we piled in. I'm sure that rolling around inside a dryer would have made for a smoother ride but this death defying maniac was the only hope we had for making our flight. We spent way more at a dead stop than I was comfortable with but when moving nothing in our path was safe- pedestrians, one way streets, traffic cops were all violated as we screamed by- I think we even scattered a group of nuns on their way to the service.

Not meant to happen?

Defying his own predictions, our taxi dude got us to the airport with just enough time to spare. Told that the plane was boarding and with DH dragging her bum knee behind her we raced the remaining gauntlet sliding in safe at the gate... only to be told that the aircraft was experiencing mechanical problems and there would be a delay.

DH is now firmly convinced that we should not be getting on this plane!

After numerous false positives, United finally admitted what we had all figured out- this plane was going nowhere any time soon. Announcements were made that a new windshield had to be shipped in- I've always enjoyed driving with the wind in the face but apparently the pilots of United weren't really comfortable with a big hole in the front of the plane. The ground staff ushered us into waiting buses and we were shuffled off to a nearby hotel to await the outcome of the effort to crazy glue and duct tape a new windshield in place. When the airline pays for a hotel, you know it's not going to be a short delay.

Maybe we should just concede defeat and head back to Thailand?

After a brief fitful sleep and numerous trips to the buffet (in a somewhat futile effort to get even with United since they were paying), we were returned to the airport and, after another two hour delay, we were off to Palau a day later than planned.After figuring out that all of Koror could be seen within a 2 hour walk, we discovered a dive shop that seemed to meet the DH standard of offering better than 50-50 odds of returning from the deep so we booked our dives. They also offered kayaks so we took a couple of these out right away to explore the nearby Rock Islands- DH refused the offer of a double kayak, aka divorce boat, and paid a big price because of a relatively strong wind. My cannons, although somewhat rusty, had me almost hydroplaning along the water but DH (who never graduated from the kitten-weight section of the Tottenham Gym) developed the shakes and we had to turn around before the tide carried her all the way back to Manila. Very scenic adventure nonetheless.

Dive day! At dockside we sat back and watched some of the diving fanatics negotiate their preferred dive sites (all the while double-checking their gear which would have made some NASA astronauts envious- do you really notice the lighter weight of a titanium regulator in your mouth??). Feeling very out of place, I was flashing back to our formal dinners on the cruise ship when we showed up in our hiking gear (we actually met a Schnapps enthusiast from Austria who was planning on diving 25 days out of the month he was staying in Palau- he had a huge manta ray tattooed on his forearm). Our only itinerary demand was to be on the boat that was scheduled to stop near Jellyfish Lake (for snorkeling) but as luck would have it the two dive sites for that particular boat were the big hitters for Palau- the German Channel and the Blue Corner. We even had a happy couple from Canada/Bermuda that helped balance out the Speedo-wearing angry East Europeans that made up most of our fellow divers (still unable to determine the source of their anger?). Our first plunge took us to a Manta Ray cleaning station and our first ever Manta Ray sighting took place just after settling in- our first marine glider was a little shy and kept a respectful distance above us but the second was much more determined to have a closer look at the bubble-blowers surrounding his territory- only a last minute change in direction prevented a fish-human encounter of the strangest kind. I hadn't used enough weight and with all of the effort to stay down, I burned through my air quicker than normal and at our decompression stop I had to use DH's spare regulator and tap into her air. Her wide-eyed reaction when I did this suggested that she was having a real struggle with the concept of sharing her dwindling air- I guess I should have done a better job on Valentines Day!

The second dive was another first. After getting to the edge of the reef we had to use hooks that tethered us to the reef while the current pushed against us- much the same as floating in a wind tunnel I suppose. And while we were hoping that the hooks would hold, we had sharks, groupers, turtles, and numerous other colourful and large underwater critters put on a real show for us. Even DH forgot that she was a nervous diver and had one of her best dives ever. With the diving finished we headed for our primary reason for coming to Palau- Jellyfish Lake. After a short up and down hike we donned the snorkel gear and started swimming out to the middle of the lake. Initial single-sighting encounters were underwhelming but as we approached the area of the lake in full sun more and more of these space-alien-like creatures appeared all around us. At times it seemed as though there were more jellyfish than lake water surrounding us. Some were the size of soccer balls diminishing in bulk to the babies who were the size of tadpoles. After being fed a diet of painful jellyfish sting stories over the years, it was hard to remember that these bizarre looking blobs offered up only a mild sting that most people can't feel (a result of evolution since these fish have no predators in the lake).  I really felt like I was in one of those 'Honey I Shrunk The Kids' movies and I was now swimming around a Petrie dish filled with some unidentified bacterial virus. With their somewhat transparent coverings, jelly texture, and indeterminate body parts (do they have eyes?), these have to be among the most unique critters on the planet. This alien infested lake was a big WOW.

On our last day in Palau we wanted to have another look around but above the waterline so we rented a 4x4 that looked to be the love child result of a golf cart mating with a Jeep Cherokee. We headed north of Koror to the big island of Malau and started using old Japanese mining and supply roads for no other reason than to get as muddy and wet as we could. Apparently my off-road performance was judged to be inadequate and after pushing me out of the drivers seat, DH proceeded to hit every pothole, ditch, road rut, and deeper-than-expected water hole that she could find. Apparently mild mannered DH completely loses her mind behind the wheel of a 4x4- drenching me in mud gave her a particular buzz (probably revenge for the air-sharing event the day before?). I tried not to envision the look on the guys face when we brought back what was left of the vehicle. We did see spectacular coastlines, rain forest, old war relics, and even a grand set of capital buildings (like governments everywhere, the one in Palau had a great idea to relieve the congestion in Koror by moving the seat of government to a brand new location- it didn't work and these buildings now sit in the middle of nowhere). Once Maniacal DH had transformed back, it was time to start packing for our next middle-of-the-night flight.
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Comments

sherrri on

maybe the eastern europeons are angry because they are wearing speedos!

MartinandJazz on

Great blog and amazing pictures!!! The Parrot fish (that was a Parrot fish right?!) was huge! The Manta Rays must have been quite an experience. I look forward to your next posting. Travel (and drive safe -especially off road). Your friends, always. MartinandJazz.

Elaine & Doug on

Some terrific dive narrative and pics! Please keep your eye on Cyclone Koji.

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