Swimming with Jellyfish in Sulawesi
As an Australian, I’m accustomed to approaching all living things in the wilderness with trepidation, fearing that any bite, scratch, or sting could well be my last. So at first, taking a swim in a jellyfish-infested lake seemed like diving into a giant pool of death.
The waters of Mariona Lake in Sulawesi, Indonesia, are filled with thousands and thousands of pink Amaranth jellyfish, each just larger than a human fist. The lake is separated from the ocean by a ten-metre wide chunk of land, and its body of water is the size of your average football field. The jellyfish got trapped there due to some freak-of-nature event, a sudden geological shift, meaning they’ve been isolated from predators for eons of jelly-generations in a reduced saline environment. Their stingers have de-evolved as a result, with their sting now so mild it can no longer be felt by human touch.
As I approached the shores of Mariona Lake and pondered taking a dip with a colony of blubbery jellyfish, my mind couldn’t help but flicker to that pinnacle scene in Seven Pounds. You know – the one where Will Smith pours several poisonous jellyfish into his bathtub and climbs in with them in order to kill himself… Suddenly, I was awash with terror; my temples trickled with sweat, and I nearly drew blood from my bottom lip as I gnawed into it like a chicken wing.
Determined to overcome my fears and not let Hollywood dramas get to me, I put my goggles on, adjusted my testicles in my board shorts (which seemed to have sucked themselves up into my inguinal canals) and did a pathetic frog dive into the lake.
There they were—everywhere—an underwater jelly land of death staring right at me. There was nowhere to escape, so I floated motionless in a foetal position for oh, I don’t know, half an hour or so, as my heart attempted to gouge itself out of my chest.
I assumed I would be given a choice as to which jellyfish I would touch first. I was wrong. The first one came blubbering over the back of my leg unexpectedly and I nearly shat myself in fear. My face wrinkled up in awkward agony as though I were sucking on the citrus of a thousand lemons.
But the jellyfish bypassed me without inflicting pain. I patted myself down in amazement. My anguished body flushed with relief, and I became compelled to further explore the realm of the jellies.
Suddenly, I was Michael Phelps-ing my arse through that lake with swarms of jellyfish gobbledegooking all over my body. I began to laugh at the sensation of their flesh on mine. I was no longer Will Smith; I had become Dory in Finding Nemo, bouncing along the tops of the jellyfish and calling each one “Squishy”.
Looking down through the crystal-clear water at all the Squishies, I realised the lake was an abyss as deep as the ocean. The jellyfish drifted downwards below me. It was as if I was staring into outer space watching a galaxy of jelly planets collide with one another, or a bunch of psychedelic aliens pulsating and oozing luminous pink light.
As freaky looking as they were, and as counter-intuitive as it seemed to trust them, the jellyfish became my friends. They had life down to a T, man. All they did was float about in jelly peace, living a simple life where “violence” only occurred when they bounced off each another in ignorant bliss. I was surprised at how much we had in common. We were lovers, not fighters; we enjoyed swimming and had the same taste in movies.
I played in their surreal realm for as long as possible, but as nighttime loomed, I realised it was time to leave. With this knowledge came a sweeping wave of sadness. Why couldn’t I be one with the jellies forever?
Considering Lake Mariona is one of only four jellyfish lakes that exist in the world, taking the plunge is something that should be at the top of everyone’s bucket list. To do so, make your way to Central Sulawesi and get to the Togean Islands. Find a local skipper to take you out to the lake, and you’re all set. Seeing as Lake Mariona has only really been known to tourists since 2011, be super careful to not destroy the fragile ecosystem – don’t wear sunscreen, don’t pee in the water and don’t wear flippers, because if you accidentally kick the jellies (which you will), you’ll do a fair bit of damage.
Images by the author