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Indonesia: better than Palau

Justin Hofman Instagram

*** This place is magical. I don't know where this post will go so I'm going to remove the name for the time being. I would hate to see the place destroyed like so many other unique places on Earth. Sometimes we love these locations to death and I don't want to contribute to that. If you're really interested, email me or find it online yourself. ***

There are a handful of tiny islands in the ??? Sea called the ??? Islands and we spent a few days pulling real expedition stops there. Our first stop was at a large atoll called ???. I have vague recollections of people telling me about sting less jelly lakes in Indonesia, but the name and location of those lakes never took root in my brain so it was a really nice surprise to actually get to visit this unique island.

Unlike the heavily touristed Jellyfish Lake in Palau, ??? sees a fraction of the tourists that Palau does. There's a small wooden wharf that leads to a small entrance house which leads to a rickety staircase that climbs up and over the ancient coral reef turned verdant green jungle. ??? apparently has a very healthy population of pit vipers, but I had to get to the other side quickly while I had time. Once you crest the small hill that denotes the edge of the atoll, you can see the first glimpse of the lagoon/lake through the jungle. Some more rickety steps and finally you're on a small dock with slippery steps into the still water. Right from the dock you can see sting less jellies pulsating to and fro.

This morning was special because I got to head over about an hour before the residents and guests were dispatched from the ship. My boss had given me a chunk of time to head over and film and shoot in peace. The rest of the day would be chaotic and safety of other people would consume most of my attention. But at that moment a handful of staff had the entire lake to ourselves. The millionaires and billionaires on the ship didn't even have this sort of exclusive access. Who's rich now?

For the better part of an hour we swam around like excited kids hollering about this jelly and that fish and “look at these sponges!”. It was really amazing but there was also a hint of desperation in our excitement. We knew that responsibilities would soon come cresting over the hill and playtime would be over. These are the moments that make the shitty dinners with climate change deniers and long days worth it. 45 minutes to shoot and film all the jellies and critters I could.

I found myself almost immediately turning away from the biggest, most obvious jellies because they just didn't tell the story of the place. This jelly looks a LOT like the jellies in Palau so without any explanation you wouldn't be able to tell the difference. Instead I focused a lot of my attention on the mangroves. Amongst the maze of roots swam hundreds of shimmery fish of several different species. Encrusting animals added a much-needed dash of color to an otherwise muted scene. I tried my best to shoot a jelly with this as the backdrop but it's tough. These solar-powered jellies do not like the shade and will avoid it at all costs. It would have been too easy to push a jelly into the right position but then it wouldn't really be natural. I did eventually get a decent frame but it was quite challenging. I'm sure that a few more hours or a couple of days of work would result in a truly amazing photo, but for just an hour of goofing off I feel pretty good with what I captured. I was even able to get a shot of the fields of upside down jellies with a swimming, Palau-like jelly about it. That's a unique shot. It would have made for really interesting video with all the upside down jellies just sitting there on the bottom pulsating, but without a scuba tank I'm not really able to hold a shot steady enough for my liking. The good news is that you can actually go for a dive in this lake, which is totally rad. Next time I'm doing that!!!!! Unlike Palau with it's layer of toxic goop at about 50 feet, you can safely dive at ??? and there's so much to see on the bottom that it would be worth it. A local dive guide showed up later in the morning so I picked his brain as much as possible in between helping old ladies with their snorkel gear.

Unfortunately everyone kept comparing it to Palau which served as a good place for me to talk about the similarities and differences between these two islands. This huge lagoon/lake is so much more interesting and beautiful than Palau in my opinion. Although Palau has a higher density of jellies which can make it really awe-inspiring, ??? has at least 4 species of endemic jellies and a much more vibrant community of other animals. I actually ended up spending more time photographing the sponges, tunicates, and other colorful stuff living on the mangroves than I did the jellies. The coloration was so vivid against the topside blues and greens. There's something about mangrove ecosystems that's so magical. When the water is clear I could spend all day just floating, watching, and poking around in that tangle of stilt roots. Alas, it was time to head out. I’ll just keep thinking about that magic hour floating by myself amongst all those jellies.

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