Published November 17, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott
On the last day of my week in Palau, I asked five snorkeling companions to name their favorite part of the trip. The fact that we were evenly divided in our choices is testament to the wide variety of stunning marine life in this island nation of Micronesia. We were two for Ulong Channel, two for Jellyfish Lake and two for mandarinfish.
Ulong is a long, narrow island in western Palau, and the channel that runs near it has strong currents that nourish an astonishing number of coral species. Every shade of blue, pink, yellow, green and brown shaped like fingers, tables, bubbles, fans and flowers dazzled us as we drifted a few feet above the reef. Since our boat driver followed us in the deep part of the channel, all we had to do was gape, float and be awed.
To the two Hawaii island members of our group who were particularly interested in corals, Ulong Channel was such nirvana they asked our guide to go twice. There were no objections.
The other favorite, Jellyfish Lake, is a must-see for snorkelers worldwide. The golden jellyfish, often called by their scientific name Mastigias (ma-STIJ-ee-us), are found in a single land-bound lake. Fissures in the surrounding limestone island are the lake’s only connection to the ocean.
Each morning, an average of 5 million pulsing jellies swim to the east side of the lake and gradually move west with the sun, continually rotating their bell-shaped bodies. The traveling and twirling give the algae living in the jellies’ tissues enough sunshine to manufacture the carbohydrates that feed the jellyfish.
The symbiotic system is so efficient that the jellies, ranging from fingernail-size babies to teacup-size adults, no longer need to eat live plankton and therefore have no stinging tentacles. To drift among these graceful rhythmic creatures is to feel the heartbeat of Palau.
I loved the Ulong corals and golden jellies, but when I got so close to several tiny mandarinfish that I could take halfway decent pictures, I nearly wept with joy.
Only 2 to 3 inches long, the paisley-patterned mandarinfish are found only in the Western Pacific, where they hide among coral litter. The uncommon little fish are hard to find, but if you’re as lucky as we were and have a great guide as we did, the fish can sometimes be spotted at dusk when they emerge to mate.
For us the little darlings practically posed for our cameras. To be eye to eye with a curious mandarinfish in 2 feet of clear, calm water ranks at the tippy top of my list of superb snorkeling experiences.
I’m happily home on Oahu now, but Palau’s Crayola-colored corals, gilded jellyfish and decked-out mandarinfish will sparkle in my mind forever.
Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com
©2014 Susan Scott