Glowed Up

Glowed Up

Swimming in nature’s spa.

The day-long tour has barely begun but already our guide Nilio, stinks.

Literally stinks. He’s diving deep into the turquoise waters of The Milky Way, a lagoon nestled in Babeldaob Island, Palau, and bringing up smelly mud from the bottom to pile high on a boogie board.

Babeldaob is one of UNESCO World Heritage Listed Rock Islands, a stunning archipelago of hundreds of small, forested limestone isles fringed by coral and teeming with fish and sealife. But, even amongst this overwhelmingly beautiful landscape, the Milky Way is special. From the entry to the lagoon, the change in the water colour is dramatic, turning from the aqua of the inner reef to the unique, opaque blue that earned the Milky Way its name. 

Nilio assures me this place is a natural spa and that the limestone sludge will make me look 10 years younger. He needs to sell it. It has the strong sulphur smell of the deep. I slather it on, waiting a few minutes for the heat of the day to cake it dry before washing it off with the bath warm water that is milky enough to do Cleopatra proud. 

I don’t have a mirror, but once I wash off the mud, my skin does feel silky smooth. I’m hoping he’s right about making me look younger because I fear our next dip —at Jellyfish Lake—could age me. 

The last time I swam with jellyfish it wasn't planned and it didn't end well. It involved searing pain and an unhygienic injection of pain medication from someone I hope was a doctor, so the idea of voluntarily plunging into a lake filled with jellyfish doesn’t immediately appeal. However, being a travel writer isn’t all massages and cocktails by the pool so, here I am, standing on a platform on the edge of a beautiful but very dark lake fringed by mangroves. A lake that is home, I’m told, to thousands of harmless jellyfish who have lost their sting after being isolated from the rest of the ocean—and predators— by an act of geology.  

It’s a trust game as I pull on my snorkel and flippers and edge out to the side of the platform and slide under the water. It's dark. A strange, eerie kind of dark, interrupted by spears of sunlight that pierce the surface to play a flickering show.   

Immediately, despite the low visibility, I see multiple jellyfish. Not thousands — the numbers are down this year — but, somehow, that makes the sightings more impressive. They glide under and next to me like ghosts, the light making them glow as they pulse with life.  

I return to the platform, unscathed, and strap my snorkelling gear back onto my lifejacket to keep my hands free for the short, but strenuous, climb up and over the island back to our boat for our next stop. Ngermeaus Island.  

Ngermeaus is a caricature of a Pacific island. The sort of thing you’d draw as a child. Pristine white sand that slides into the translucent waters that gently lap the shore. Palm trees swaying in the slight breeze. You get the picture. It’s stunning. 

After a delicious lunch, I head back to the boat to get ready to switch swimming companions. Instead of jellyfish we’ll be sharing the water with the reef sharks I can already see circling the boat.  

Knowing reef sharks don’t usually eat people is one thing, believing it is another, but I’m amazed to discover I’m completely at ease. Wonder is the main emotion. They are incredible. Close enough to touch, the sharks weave their way around our party with two small thin fish, who take care of shark hygiene issues, clinging to their sides. It’s an amusing sight as they follow an invisible track through the water, as if they are on their own Tour de Palau with the sharks taking the lead as their domestique.  

More independent fish join the tour, with a strange heaving mass of fish forming a ball close to the sea floor. It’s fascinating and I don’t want to leave. None of us do. We all pretend not to hear Nilio calling us back to the boat.  

But it’s lucky he manages to finally round up my party or we would have missed Clam City, and the opportunity to eyeball the biggest clams I’ve ever seen. In fact, the biggest clams most people have seen and some of the largest of the region, weighing over 110 kilograms. Water distorts but some of the Tridacna clams look to be a metre long. They are like something out of a Pirates of the Caribbean set, with huge wavy mouths covered in green vegetation. The clams don’t look real until you see them open and shut. Just like in the movies. Incredible.   

Then, the final stop is upon us. Fantasy Reef. I drop into a world of coral teeming with fish in water so clear it’s like swimming in an aquarium. Zebra fish (okay, a type of Surgeonfish if you’re a tropical fish nerd) dart by, big fish, small fish, all different colours and shapes. And then we hit the mother lode — a colony of Nemos, their fluorescent striped clownfish collars glowing white against their orange and black bodies. 

Here, the snorkelling is incredibly easy. The saltwater is so buoyant there’s no need to kick. You can just zone out, and let the gentle waves push you to explore new parts of the lush coral and the fish that lurk in the deeper water where the reef suddenly drops away. Magic.  

Back in the boat and we head for a quick group pic at the Natural Arch where nature has sculpted a doorway to this water paradise and peppered it with Kur, a pretty white flowering plant that is only found in Palau. 

The trip back to town is an adventure of its own. The boat zooms over the waves, the hull thudding against the water, the swell cooling us with a refreshing spray. It’s a hell of a fun ride. Tired but exhilarated I disembark and walk down the wharf to a very conveniently located bar. We finish our day’s activities with a cold one, against the backdrop of a stunning limestone island, and toast the end of an incredible day’s adventuring with glowing skin and not a painkilling needle in sight. 

Get there

Air Niugini flies to Koror, Palau once a week – from Brisbane via Port Moresby, Papua New Guniea. The planes are comfy and the airlines’ lovely hostesses provide free pillows and a blanket. How good?

Air Niugini. 

Stay there

The Palau Royal Resort boasts its own private beach and a generous breakfast buffet while its next-door neighbour, the Cove Resort Palau, has a chill vibe and promotes its plush mattresses – and they onto something. 

Palau Royal Resort

Cove Resort Palau

Tour There

Necomarine full-day Rock Islands and snorkelling tour covers off all the main points from this article, but there’s still so much more to Palau than this. 

Checkout the Palau Visitor Authority for more info.


Palau Visitor’s Authority

Words Kate Robertson

Photos Kate Robertson

Tags: Babeldaob, island, jellyfish lake, Palau