Cruising Through the Rock Islands

January 15, 2014

Today we once again enjoyed the type of weather most people only dream about in the middle of January. Sunny, slightly breezy, and hardly a cloud in the sky, which was perfect since we spent our entire day touring the Rock Islands with members of the Koror state government.

We assembled bright and early to meet Ileb Olkeriil of Koror state and four of the state’s conservation officers. We boarded the boat quickly, looked over a map of the day’s route, and were off. The plan was to view Palau’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the various protected areas within it, including No Entry and No Take sites, as well as popular tourist venues.

Our first stop was Ngemelis, an uninhabited island that’s home to a new lookout post for Koror’s conservation officers. A small turquoise structure sits rather subtly at the top of a relatively small rock island, but the view from inside that little building is one of the most stunning sights we’ve seen in Palau yet. From that post, Koror’s conservation officers can see huge expanses of the aquamarine waters, including important No Take and No Entry zones. Although the post is not quite operational yet, once it is up and running the rangers will take 14-day rotations staying there to ensure that tourists and Palauans alike are adhering to the area’s conservation regulations.

The next stop on our eight-hour tour was “Big Drop Off.” Now, we’ve snorkeled some pretty breathtaking coral reefs so far on this trip, so when Ileb and the rangers casually said “we were just going to do a quick snorkel” at this site, I didn’t have any unusually high expectations…but I should have. From schools of Butterflyfish that let us swim right along with them, to a huge Blacktip shark, from a wall of coral that extended deep into the ocean’s blue abyss, to pesky Triggerfish that had no fear of humans (read: Margaret), Big Drop Off was amazing. Ileb and company had to repeatedly ask us to get out of the water and back in the boat!

Our third destination was the island of Ulong where we stopped for lunch and exploration. Besides being where one of the first seasons of Survivor was filmed, Ulong is also a popular spot for dive tours to stop for lunch. So as we pulled up to shore, there were already two boats worth of tourists lounging on the beach and eating their lunches. While I have no outright qualms with either tourists or lunches, it created such a strange juxtaposition as we explored the rest of the island. Our guides showed us monuments to famous shipwrecks, the remnants of 3000-year-old villages, rock artwork that likely predated the ancient villages, and the nests of the endangered Micronesian Megapode… and then we circled back to the scantily clad tourists on their smartphones. I guess if you’re going to stop and eat anywhere post-scuba diving, why not a UNESCO-certified site of cultural significance?

The last stop of the day was to Ongeim’l Tketau, which means “fifth lake” in Palauan, but is probably better known as Jellyfish Lake. In the Rock Islands, there are five saltwater lakes that are inhabited by endemic jellyfish species, but visitors are only allowed in one. Anything I try and say about Jellyfish Lake will not do it justice. Go on Google, look at some pictures of it for a while, then come back and continue reading this.

Cool, right? Now multiply that by a million. You are completely surrounded by these silently graceful creatures (who don’t harm you, by the way), to the point where you almost lose your sense of time and place. It was a serene and shocking experience all at once. Forget yoga, just go snorkel through Jellyfish Lake.

I wish my witticisms and pictures could adequately do our day justice, but I know they will fall far short. Today was absolutely one of the best days I’ve had in Palau. No chatty tourists, bumps, bruises, or stings could detract from the amazing things we were able to do and see today.

The view from atop Ngemelis' lookout post.
The view from atop Ngemelis’ lookout post.