Is it Safe to Swim with Jellyfish?


For such small creatures, jellyfish have a fearsome reputation.

Is it safe to swim with jellyfish, and if so, where?

Lisa Niver swims with jellyfish for Scuba Diver Life

Although they’ve got a bad reputation, it’s perfectly safe to swim with jellyfish at a few places in the world. Kakaban Island in Indonesia’s Derawan Archipelago holds one of these marine lakes, populated by thousands of stingless jellies. Visitors don snorkel gear and slide into an ethereal scene.

Arriving by small boat at Kakaban after an hour bouncing in the waves from Derawan Island, I pondered what would happen if we didn’t see a single jellyfish. Traipsing along the wooden walkway through the trees and climbing up to the marine lake, I considered the opposite: what if we see lots of jellyfish? As I looked out across the lake, I could see more jellyfish than wildflowers in a spring meadow. Trepidation flowed through my veins.

Lisa Niver in Jellyfish Lake photo by Bucket List JourneysSwimming in a sea of jellyfish (literally)

Before our journey deep into Kalimantan, Indonesia, I had never heard of stingless jellyfish. I only knew that I was terrified after a man-of-war sent a snorkeler I knew to the hospital in the Florida Keys. Fun fact: the man-of-war isn’t actually a jellyfish. I was afraid, but I learned something new in Kakaban. With no natural predators, the jellies here had evolved to become stingless, and therefore harmless to snorkelers. If jellyfish can evolve, I thought, can I?

Sanusi, our guide, beckoned me to jump in. With a deep breath, I gently lowered myself into the water and slowly swam toward the center. Despite my fears, it was sublime. I tried not to brush up against any of the miraculous moon jellies but there were too many. At some points it felt like swimming in Jell-O. They were everywhere.

Jellyfish Lake

On that trip, I learned of another colony of stingless jellyfish. I was ready for my next quest — Jellyfish Lake in the Rock Islands of Palau. This time the gentle boat ride left us on a dock with a bucket for rinsing our feet and snorkel gear. We climbed a steep slope up and down to reach the marine lake. I felt a bit of disappointment when I saw only one or two jellyfish at first. I knew, however, that they migrate across the lake as the day progresses. They follow the line of the sun so that the algae they carry can produce food for them both.

As I swam toward the center and the sunlight, I was engulfed in a fog of nearly transparent creatures. Unfortunately, due to El Niño and severe drought in 2015 and 2016, most of the jellyfish in Jellyfish Lake have disappeared. Although you can still hike around it, the lake remains closed to snorkelers, although Palau officials are hopeful that populations will rebound.

Why don’t they sting?

I was inspired to understand how these creatures changed from stinging their dinner to a symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae, which provide food from photosynthesis in exchange for the jellyfish moving them into the sun each day. I questioned Michael Dawson, a professor of evolutionary biology at UC-Merced. He’s proposed that scientists reclassify the golden jellyfish I swam with, Mastigias cf. papua etpisoni, as a subspecies of the spotted jellyfish living in the nearby lagoons because they’re so different.

Professor Dawson explained that the number of jellyfish in the lake varies from zero to 30 million. The jellies I swam with at Kakaban Island were likely a combination of several types: MastigiasAureliaCassiopea and Tripedalia.

“By studying the marine lakes, we hope to learn about the interplay of the mechanisms of evolution and the outcomes, the rates of evolution, and how evolutionary and ecological processes interact in community assembly and dynamics,” said Dawson. Both the Palau and Indonesia jellyfish colonies developed in a closed environment of a marine lake.

The future of Jellyfish Lake

For now, as mentioned, snorkelers cannot visit Jellyfish Lake. But is tourism in general good for the jellyfish? This is a key management question for Palau, which needs the economic boost that tourism provides without destroying the attraction with overuse. Egan Mayer, head of the Rock Island Rangers, and I discussed the current situation and what they can do to protect the jellyfish. We discussed not only the impact of fins on jellyfish, but also whether or not cleaning your snorkeling gear might help prevent invasive species. Mayer hopes to help produce a new introductory film for tourists and foreign guides as a reminder that the area is sensitive, and that our presence impacts the creatures. In the meantime, those who want to swim with jellyfish can still do so in Indonesia — safely and enjoyably.

Lisa Niver in Kakaban Indonesia


Thank you to Scuba Diver Life for

publishing my articles about being in the water with

the Bull Sharks and the Jellyfish!

Lisa Ellen Niver

Lisa Ellen Niver is an award-winning travel expert who has explored 102 countries and six continents. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, she worked on cruise ships for seven years and backpacked for three years in Asia. She is the founder of the website WeSaidGoTravel which is read in 235 countries and was named #3 on Rise Global’s top 1,000 Travel Blogs. Niver is a speaker at the Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Dallas Travel and Adventure Shows for 2023. Her podcast, “Make Your Own Map,” has been watched in more than 11 countries on 4 continents. Niver is represented by Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary, Inc. Look for her memoir in Fall 2023 from Post Hill Press/Simon and Schuster. You can find Lisa Niver talking travel on broadcast television at KTLA TV Los Angeles, Satellite Media Tours, The Jet Set TV and Orbitz travel webisodes as well as her YouTube channel, where her WeSaidGoTravel videos have nearly 2 million views. With more than 150,000 followers across social media, she has hosted Facebook Live for USA Today 10best, is verified on Twitter and listed on IMDb, and is the Social Media Manager for the Los Angeles Press Club. As a journalist, Niver has interviewed Deepak Chopra, Olympic medalists, and numerous bestselling authors and been invited to both the Oscars and the United Nations. She has been a judge for the Gracie Awards for the Alliance of Women in Media, and has run 15 travel competitions on her website, publishing over 2,500 writers and photographers from 75 countries. For her print and digital stories as well as her television segments, she has been awarded three Southern California Journalism Awards and two National Arts and Entertainment Journalism Awards and been a finalist twenty times.   Niver has published more than 2000 articles, in more than three dozen magazines and journals including National Geographic, Wired, Teen Vogue, HuffPost Personal, POPSUGAR, Ms. Magazine, Luxury Magazine, Smithsonian, Sierra Club, Saturday Evening Post, AARP, AAA Explorer Magazine, American Airways, Delta Sky, enRoute (Air Canada), Hemispheres, Jewish Journal, Myanmar Times, BuzzFeed, Robb Report, Scuba Diver Life, Ski Utah, Trivago, Undomesticated, USA Today, TODAY, Wharton Magazine, and Yahoo. Awards National Arts and Entertainment Journalism Awards 2021 Winner: Book Critic: Ms. Magazine “Untamed: Brave Means Living From the Inside Out” 2019 Winner: Soft News Feature for Film/TV: KTLA TV “Oscars Countdown to Gold with Lisa Niver” 2019 Finalist for: Soft News, Business/Music/Tech/Art Southern California Journalism Awards 2022 Finalist: Book Criticism 2021 Winner: Technology Reporting 2021 Finalist: Book Criticism 2020 Winner: Print Magazine Feature: Hemispheres Magazine, “Painter by the Numbers, Rembrandt” 2020 Finalist: Online Journalist of the Year, Activism Journalism, Educational Reporting, Broadcast Lifestyle Feature 2019 Finalist: Broadcast Television Lifestyle Segment for “Ogden Ski Getaway” 2018 Finalist: Science/Technology Reporting, Travel Reporting, Personality Profile 2017 Winner: Print Column “A Journey to Freedom over Three Passovers” Social Media Presence YouTube Channel: We Said Go Travel (1.7 million views) Short form video:TikTok, Instagram Reels, Facebook Reels, YouTube Shorts Twitter: lisaniver (90,000 followers) Instagram: lisaniver (24,000 followers) Pinterest: We Said Go Travel (20,000 followers and over 70,000 monthly views) Facebook: lisa.niver (5,000 followers); We Said Go Travel (3,000 followers) LinkedIn: lisaellenniver (9000 contacts)

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