Swimming with jellyfish

A typical mafia threat where the mob warns you to sleep with the fishes seems rather mild for an adventure junkie who has been surrounded by millions of golden jellyfish at this 12,000 year-old marine lake located in the island nation of Palau in the Pacific Ocean, finds Yolande D'Mello

Newly weds Vishal and Diya Dembla had a rather unique idea of a romantic vacation. Luxurious spa treatments, breakfast in bed and dancing in fancy ballrooms were all passe for this adventurous couple, who decided to pack their scuba diving suits and deep-sea dive into the pristine waters off the Republic of Palau, an island nation 3,200 km to the south of Tokyo.

In February last year, the couple spent seven days at a home stay in Angaur, arranged by a local diving school. "We're avid divers. We've been to Australia, Lakshadweep and Andaman, but were tired of the commercial destinations and we wanted to do some 'serious' diving," explains Diya, calling Palau the most secluded locale so far.

So what was it like scuba diving off the barrier reef that links the islands of Babeldaob, Koror, and Peleliu, where you are likely to chance upon sharks, turtles and the manta ray, found around the world at coral reefs?
"The best moment was when we were 20 m under the water, while a 25 m wide manta ray swam above us, and we were in its shadow. The water is so clear that you can see the bottom of the sea bed, and the islands aren't commercial, so the sea life doesn't shy away from people," she recalls with a thrill.

One of the world's youngest small sovereign states, in 1978, after three decades as part of the United Nations trusteeship, Palau chose independence instead of becoming part of the Federated States of Micronesia that was ratified in 1993. Tourists can also opt for the wreck diving tour to spot shipwrecks from World War II and understand the history of the area. "The water is so clear, it's like an underwater museum," Diya feels.

For those who don't dive, put on your bathing suits and take a dip in the Ongeim'l Tketau -- roughly translated to fifth lake, home to 13 million jellyfish. "It's a rush to be surrounded by the jellyfish. Best part, it isn't dangerous as the fish in this lake don't sting and Palau is one of the only places in the world where you can do this," she says.

Scuba diving by tourists in the lake is not allowed, since the bubbles from scuba tanks can harm the jellyfish if they collect beneath their bell. It is also considered dangerous for divers since the anoxic layer that begins at the 15 m level contains high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide, which when absorbed by the skin, can lead to death.

Jellyfish Lake is currently the only marine lake in Palau that is open to tourists. All the locals speak English and the area has a strong Spanish and Japanese influence because of the colonies that ruled the region.

For enthusiasts, Diya has some words of advice. "Scuba diving is a buddy sport, so it's wise to travel in pairs.
The waters can be unpredictable at times so it's good to have someone to look out for you. It's best not to visit just after the monsoons since the sea is rough."

Tourists aren't allowed to fish in the islands. However, locals will share their catch and even cook it for you as per the authentic local specialty.

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