The day I swam at Ongeim'l Jellyfish Lake
Updated: May 5, 2019
Being a marine biologist is a job that allows me to visit spectacular places that not many people have access to, like the incredible reefs in Los Roques Archipelago (Venezuela), the stunning Great Barrier Reef (Australia), or the spectacular waters of Antarctica.
Photos: Cayo de Agua, Los Roques National Park (top), somewhere in the Great Barrier Reef (bottom left), Paulet Island, Antarctica (bottom right) (Adriana Humanes).
My current job as Postdoctoral Research Associate at Newcastle University (UK) at the Coralassist Lab, has given me the opportunity to work in Palau where our research project takes place. Palau is a country known for standing in environmental protection, being pioneering in having a pledge to conserve its ecosystems that every tourist must sign before entering the country.
Divers and researchers are the main visitors entering Palau, attracted by incredible reefs that have escaped the global mass bleaching events that have affected the great majority of reefs worldwide during the last decade. Another iconic natural attraction of Palau is the Ongeim'l Jellyfish Lake.
I remember seeing a picture in National Geographic Magazine that caught my attention when I was a teenager, in which thousands jellyfish surrounded a snorkelling girl. The first time I visited Palau in 2017 I learned that the jellyfish population in the lake had decreased to extremely low numbers, going from 30 million at its peak in 2005, to almost zero during the drought crisis in 2016. As a result, no tours to the lake were offered and some locals attributed the decline in tourism during the last years to the loss of this attraction. Scientist have found a correlations between El Niño and the shrinking of the jellyfish population from 2006, as the rise in water temperature led to a decrease in algae growth, a major food source for jellyfish. Consequently, Palauans are always grateful when it rains since the recovery of the jellyfish lake could depend on the decrease of water temperature in the lake. The effects of climate change as a consequence of human activities are affecting not only our ecosystems, but also our daily life, and the jellyfish lake is a good example of this. Together with coral reefs, the jellyfish lake could be examples of ecosystems that future generations will not have the fortune to visit and meet as we have had in the past.
Last February, as I was getting ready to return to Palau for this year field trip I was surprised when Eveline, one of the PhD student of our research group posted beautiful pictures of Ongeim'l Jellyfish Lake where several of this incredible creatures could be spotted! I couldn't believe that the jellyfish population had returned, but I imagined that maybe only a few hundreds individuals were present in the lake. Finally the day came, and on the 7th of March I went swimming to Ongeim'l Jellyfish Lake. When I jumped into the lake I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I was surrounded by thousands of golden jellyfish of different sizes that swimmed with delicate moves. Every place where I directed my view I could see nothing else than jellyfish! It was like swimming in a bean soup of 1.71 million m3! This was the first time I have seen the recovery of a marine population after almost going to extinction due to the impacts of human activities, which was blowing my mind! It seemed like nothing had happened and that the harmony and equilibrium that currently dominates this ecosystem had always been there. It is a great example that population dynamics change when stressors are not present or when they decrease in intensity or frequency, and that resilience is an emergent property of groups of individuals from the same specie.
Photo: 1st Lulu, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th Adriana Humanes
The same day that I had the opportunity to witness this spectacular population recovery in such a beautiful scenario, my home country Venezuela was experiencing a major power blackout. An area of 159.542 km2 were 32 million people live, was without power supply for at least 5 days (some places where without power for even 10 days or more), causing serious problems in hospitals, industry, transport and in water service, and at least 43 deaths resulted. Power outages have been occurring frequently in the countryside of Venezuela during the last 20 years, but they have never occurred for such long periods and at this spatial scale. This was not an isolated event caused by natural unknown factors, but the result of the corrupted government regime that has destroyed the basic services supplies for Venezuelans. During the last 20 years, Venezuela has been under a government regime that violates human rights on a daily basis and that ranks in place 169th out of 180 countries according to Transparency International's 2017 Corruption Perception Index. As a result, Venezuela is going through a humanitarian crisis, and around 7% of the total population have left the country. This migrant crisis has worsen since 2015 and represents one of the largest population movements in Latin American history. The exodus impacts even those who haven’t left. Many schools, Medical Centers and industries have closed due to lack of personnel. Venezuela's migration has been compared to the forced migration that resulted from the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011. Though immigration from Venezuela to other countries has been occurring since the 2000s, the most recent wave of migration includes around 2 million people. I form part of this 7% of people that left Venezuela due to the current crisis, moving abroad looking for better opportunities. I hope that in the same way that the Jellyfish population at the Ongeim'l lake recovered from the effects of El Niño, Venezuela will be able to recover democracy and will become again a country that offers people a future. As one of the researchers that works with me said to me the day we visited the lake "Jellyfish are known to be resistant organisms, a key factor for the restoration of the population density to normal values", I hope that Venezuelans are able to do so too, and that I will be able to witness the change.