Mon, Jan 28, 2019 - Page 4 News List

Tourists return to bathe with Palau’s golden jellyfish

AFP, KOROR, Palau

Swimming with the famous golden jellyfish in Palau can be put back on the bucket list following a two-year ban, but bathers might be stung with a hefty price increase for the pleasure.

The Palauan government ordered the famed Ongeim’l Tketau Jellyfish Lake closed to swimmers in 2016 because of dwindling numbers of the unique creature, which has been blamed on warming waters. The conservation move proved costly for tour operators with the loss of Palau’s most popular attraction contributing to a slump in tourism numbers.

However, authorities in Koror State, which owns the resource, say that stocks are now recovering with cooler waters and tourists are again being welcomed at Jellyfish Lake.

“The jellyfish are returning, tourists are visiting again,” said Dora Benhart, the outreach officer of the Koror Department of Conservation.

Swimming with the jellyfish on Mecherchar Island, about a 45-minute boat ride from Koror, is “one of the most unique attractions” Palau has to offer, according to Palauan Visitors’ Authority Chairman Ngirai Tmetuchl.

It is estimated to attract at least two-thirds of the annual visitors to the western Pacific archipelago, with numbers peaking at 160,000 in 2015.

The numbers slumped to 108,000 last year, which Tmeuchl said was caused by a combination of factors, including restrictions on Jellyfish Lake.

The rare species of golden jellyfish does have a sting, but it is mild and often undetectable, making swimming among them a popular experience. The jellyfish population, which once swelled to about 20 million, slumped in 2016 because of El Nino, a climate pattern linked to warmer waters in the central and eastern areas of the equatorial Pacific.

Palauan President Tommy Remenegsau called for the lake to be closed and while it was never officially shut down by Koror State, the dwindling jellyfish numbers saw a self-imposed ban by tour operators, who stopped taking visitors to the island rather than charge them US$100 to see nothing.

With the waters cooling over the past year, the jellyfish have increased to numbers strong enough to invite tourists back.

However, Sharon Patris, a research biologist at the Coral Reef Research Foundation, said it would take some time to reach “normal numbers” of 5 million to 8 million.

A proposal to increase the visiting fee to US$150 is now before the Koror State legislature. Authorities are also strictly enforcing rules about the use of sunscreen, saying it must be environmentally friendly and applied more than 30 minutes before entering the water.

Clothes worn by bathers must be thoroughly rinsed before swimming to eliminate the risk of taking “invasive species” into the lake.

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