“I Shall Call Him Squishy, and He Shall Be Mine, and He Shall Be My Squishy”

by Kimberly Knabel and Kelsey Lewis

Photo by Leticia Lee.

To most people, being surrounded by thousands of jellyfish sounds like a nightmare. However, there exists a place called Eil Malk, an island of Palau, where this nightmare becomes a fantasy. The oddity of an entire lake filled with jellyfish incapable of stinging humans only occurs in a few locations worldwide. Today the USC Environmental Studies Diving Class visited the only lake open to the public; Jellyfish Lake, locally referred to as “Ongelm’l Tketau.” Being surrounded by jellyfish was at first frightening, however after letting go of the negative connotations associated with jellyfish, the
experience was simply amazing.

This phenomenon could only occur due to a specific combination of events. First, the ancient Miocene reef was uplifted causing open ocean to form a marine lake, thus trapping the jellyfish, Mastigias papua etpisoni, inside. Once alone in the lake, the jellyfish were left without predators, therefore losing their ability to sting (lucky for us). Because they don’t have any natural predators in the lake, their only limiting growth factor is their food supply. The jellyfish feed on photosynthetic algae that live in their tissues. This relationship prompts them to follow the sun, and migrate throughout the lake during the course of the day. In addition, on cloudy days (such as the day of our visit), the jellyfish ascend to the top layers of the lake to absorb what little light is available. This news created a silver lining to our rainy Thursday afternoon because we would see even more jellyfish.

Kelsey Lewis swims with the jellyfish. Photo by Leticia Lee.

Although we had been exposed to pictures of last year’s group visiting the lake, it is impossible for photos or videos to fully prepare you for the experience. Upon first jumping off the dock, there is no indication that there is anything out of the ordinary. However, gradually, a few drifting almost glowing blurred orbs began to appear below us. Slowly, the orbs were all around us, and upon closer inspection were tiny jellyfish. Once in the middle of the lake, the jellyfish were so dense that it was impossible to move without touching them. Towards the center, they also increased in size, some as large as soccer balls. As if riding in a hot air balloon mass ascension in the Albuquerque International Balloon
Fiesta, there was nowhere you could look without seeing a wall of drifting colors. We wondered how it was possible to have so many jellyfish in one lake.
Kimberly Knabel is studying environmental engineering and environmental studies. Kelsey Lewis is a senior in environmental studies.

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