With the mask dipped in the water, it’s a simultaneously extraordinary and fearsome sight. The jellyfish bob and glide past in such numbers that avoiding them is impossible. It goes against all impulses to allow them to brush your arms and blunder into your body, but these are no ordinary jellyfish.
Centuries of evolution have meant that the inhabitants of Palau’s Jellyfish Lake no longer sting – they use their tentacles to farm algae instead. Millions of them form what is essentially a floating, translucent wall – but they’ve got plenty of snorkellers for company.
There’s a danger that snorkelling in the Jellyfish Lake could become too popular for its own good. The water quality is certainly less than pristine. It’s murky, and a filmy layer floats on the surface – partially attributable to sun cream being washing off the people ploughing through the jellies.
Palau is a tiny nation of just under 20,000 people. Its natural treasures are by far the country’s greatest assets, and the Jellyfish Lake is just one of them. The Rock Islands of Koror – a collection of hundreds of green-topped limestone islands, jutting out of the lagoon that surrounds the country – are a highly photogenic, tropical paradise calling card. The Pacific archipelago is also home to some of the best diving sites in the world.
But it’s one thing to have such attractions, and another thing to protect them. To its credit, Palau has some of the toughest environmental laws on earth. In 2009, it became the first country in the world to declare its territorial waters as a shark sanctuary. In 2010 that was extended to all marine mammals. Some of the Rock Islands are completely off-limits – it’s illegal to even take a boat there without special permission. There are also other jellyfish lakes throughout the islands – but the decision has been made to allow access to just one.
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The latest step is a controversial one, however. The Koror State Government is dramatically hiking the price of visitor permits to visit the Rock Islands and Jellyfish Lake. From 1 June 2012, the Rock Islands permit will go up from $25 to $50, and the Jellyfish Lake permit from $35 to $100.
By international standards, this is very steep. For comparison, the Environmental Management Charge for the Great Barrier Reef is A$6 ($6.30) per day and the individual entrance permit for the Grand Canyon National Park is $12.
Some of the operators that take divers, snorkelers and sight-seers out to the Rock Islands are happier about this than others. How much of the price rise is about environmental protection and how much is about filling government coffers is debatable.
Marc Bauman, the director of sales and marketing at Sam’s Tours, concedes that it’s about finding the right balance point. “It’s a very difficult dilemma for a developing nation,” he says. “The government is always trying to find ways to become self-sufficient, and tourism is a good way.”
Indeed, Palau’s increasing popularity is part of the problem. After years of attracting 80,000 to 90,000 visitors per year, arrivals shot up by 26% in 2011. The bulk of the extra intake is coming in on package holidays from Taiwan and Japan – and such price-sensitive travellers are the ones likely to be put off by high permit charges for the main attractions.
Navot Bornovski, the co-owner of Fish N Fins, says: “It’s about limiting the damage – do you want one person to pay $100 or 100 people to pay $1?”
Bauman agrees. “It’s a simple fact that the more people you put in the water, the more problems you have with the environment. Just look at the damaged reefs in Hawaii or the.
“Put tons and tons of people in the water, and things will deplete.”
Of the price hike, he says: “If it helps to limit the numbers and protect the natural resources, then I’m 100% behind it. People come to Palau because of those resources, not because it’s Palau.”
In amongst the Rock Islands, it becomes abundantly clear why Palau is a special case. The boat chugs through a channel, with the lagoon waters running from milky greens to deep blues. The islets are uninhabited, acting like giant grey-green studs on the horizon. It’s a dazzling visual treat that only gets better once in the water rather than on top of it. Even with just a snorkel instead of full diving apparatus, the clarity of the ocean and the range of life within it is staggering. Swimming along the edge of a reef wall, vast shoals flit at jagged angles around each other. In every direction is a cast of thousands, occasionally punctuated by a showboating ray or reef shark.
The challenge is keeping it this way – and some people are prepared to accept the cost of doing so. Navot Bornovski of Fish N Fins is adamant that Palau can’t be allowed to go the way of other tropical destinations where development has won out. “This is the last place on the planet,” he says. “When we ruin this, there’s nowhere to go. It’s our time to protect the last stronghold.”
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Disclosure: This article was originally written for BBC Travel. I have reposted it here for the benefit ofreaders, who can’t see the BBC Travel site due to a geoblock.