These remote lagoons in the Philippines will change the way you feel about jellyfish

Kate Springer, CNN Updated 2nd December 2020
(CNN) — Of all the marine creatures in the world, jellyfish are among the oldest, toughest and most ubiquitous species. But, they are unlikely to win any popularity contests.
Their gelatinous bell-like bodies, foreboding tentacles and venomous stings can range from mildly uncomfortable to extremely painful or even fatal, depending on the type.
But there's no reason to fear the jellyfish in Tojoman Lagoon -- in fact, if you have a chance to visit when international travel reopens, you might even fall in love with them.
Located about a 2.5-hour boat ride from Siargao island in the southeastern Philippines, the lagoon is one of only a few places on Earth where you can find "stingless" jellyfish.
"You can't believe your eyes -- imagine seeing a lagoon, filled with so many stingless jellyfish," Mark Roa, who operates Siargao tours in partnership with travel booking platform Klook, tells CNN Travel.
"These jellyfish -- combined with the boat journey, the views, the clear water -- I think that's a new thing to experience for many foreigners."
Tojoman Lagoon, pictured, is filled with golden, non-stinging jellyfish.
Tojoman Lagoon, pictured, is filled with golden, non-stinging jellyfish.
smerindo_schultzpax/Moment RF/Getty Images

Next stop: Tojoman Lagoon

Most travelers explore the lagoon as part of a day trip from Siargao to Sohoton Cove National Park, which typically sets out between 5-7 a.m.
Dominique Francisco, 37, who runs tourism operator My Siargao Guide, has been taking travelers on the journey since 2015.
"The first time I visited the lagoon, I remember seeing the greenest landscape with clear blue waters," Francisco tells CNN Travel.
"I was so mesmerized that I totally forgot the long, bumpy boat ride to get there."
Surrounded by rocky outcrops and dense jungle, the lagoon is a designated sanctuary for the jellyfish. As the water is quite shallow, motorized boats cannot enter the protected area.
Instead, Francisco says travelers usually slide into bancas -- small paddleboats -- to explore the lagoon responsibly.
"When I take travelers to the lagoon, they are completely amazed by the landscape. It's a sea of blues when you look down and lush greenery all around, surrounded by rocks that enclose the area," she says.
"Travelers love to go snorkeling around the cove and paddle boat around the lagoon."
Francisco says the best time to see the creatures is from March to July, when it's simultaneously low season for surfing and peak season for jellyfish reproduction, known as blooms.
Standup paddleboarding is a popular lagoon activity.
Standup paddleboarding is a popular lagoon activity.
Courtesy @andrephillip/My Siargao Guide
While the sanctuary is often the highlight for many travelers, Roa says the rest of the day trip can be just as memorable.
"On the boats, we usually play games and eat a seafood barbecue together -- it's a lot of fun," says Roa, who provides both private and group tours of Sohoton Cove National Park.
"We also stop at three islands -- Daku Island, Guyam Island and Naked Island, although Naked Island is actually a sandbar that only appears at low tide."
Travelers have a chance to hop off the boat, stretch their legs, take photos, go snorkeling or simply take a quick dip.
"Sohoton is really exciting for first-time travelers because you get to experience a lot of things -- the jellyfish, caving, spelunking, underwater caves, beaches -- all in one day," adds Roa.

Are they really 'stingless'?

"'Stingless' is a misnomer," says Dr. Ephrime Metillo, Dean of the College of Science and Mathematics and a professor in the Department of Marine Science at Mindanao State University (Iligan Institute of Technology).
The scientist, who has extensively researched various forms of planktonic marine life including jellyfish in the Philippines, says there are two species in Tojoman Lagoon -- Aurelia aurita (moon jellyfish) and Mastigias papua (spotted jellyfish), though the latter requires genetic analysis -- and both technically do sting.
However, the venom is designed to stun or kill their prey of choice -- phytoplankton -- and isn't strong enough to penetrate relatively thick human skin, unless you're particularly vulnerable or allergic.
Most travelers explore Tojoman Lagoon as part of a Sohoton Cove National Park day trip.
Most travelers explore Tojoman Lagoon as part of a Sohoton Cove National Park day trip.
Courtesy @andrephillip/My Siargao Guide
"There was a case where M. papua medusa was ingested by a boy, and the boy showed a severe allergic reaction," Metillo tells CNN Travel, adding that the child survived.
"Some vulnerable individuals exposed to a swarm of M. papua may develop painful rashes, nausea and vomiting."
While completely harmless for the vast majority of people, it's worth noting that these jellyfish tend to congregate in huge swarms for protection from predators, like marine turtles.
But why in Siargao's lagoons? They don't really know they are doing it, explains Søren Knudsen, the program manager of Marine Conservation Philippines.
"It has to do with winds and currents, and how the jellies are pushed into the lagoons with little possibility of making it out again," Knudsen tells CNN Travel.
"Although a jelly can move by undulating its bell, it's slow and fairly inefficient. Also, they are brainless, and wouldn't 'feel trapped.'"
Luckily for the jellyfish, these lagoons provide ideal conditions for reproduction since the limited space keeps them close together.
Jellyfish are relatively resilient and hardy creatures, but it's still imperative to explore the lagoons with care.
Both scientists encourage travelers to avoid polluting the sanctuary, touching the creatures on purpose or accidentally kicking the jellyfish with fins as it could damage their bodies.
Some guides also recommend wearing reef-safe sunscreen to protect the marine ecosystem.
"While the individual jellyfish is short-lived (a few months typically) the species is incredibly resilient," says Knudsen.
"You have no doubt read that cockroaches will be the last survivors after a nuclear war because they are so resilient. In fact, cockroaches will probably be long gone when the last jelly swims in a lonely sea."

Explore more of Siargao

Tojoman Lagoon isn't the only place to see stingless jellyfish in the Siargao area. Francisco also recommends Sugba Lagoon, off the west coast of Siargao, which she says feels more "undiscovered."
"We just chanced upon it while paddleboarding one time, and I remember seeing walls and walls of jellyfish -- it felt so unreal," she recalls.
"I jumped in and felt really scared at first that they would sting me, but they didn't. When they [brush up against you] it's a weird jelly-like sensation and I'm very ticklish so I went back up the board after a minute!"
Aside from visiting the stingless jellyfish lagoons, Francisco recommends a few other "must-dos" in Siargao, like watching the sunrise from the famed Cloud 9 Tower along the island's main surfing stretch, hiking on Corregidor Island, and a road trip to Pacifico-Burgos-Alegria.
"On the road trip, you will come across the island's famous coconut palm tree roads, which you see in all those beautiful drone shots of the island," she says.
"There are also caves to explore, secluded beaches, nice surf breaks, natural rock pools, friendly locals... It's quieter and more authentic than being in tourist areas like General Luna."
Beyond this pier is Cloud 9, one of Siargao's most famous surf breaks.
Beyond this pier is Cloud 9, one of Siargao's most famous surf breaks.
She also recommends trying fresh pan de coco (coconut bread) at roadside stalls.
"It's absolutely delicious, cheap and amazingly baked under coconut husk 'coals,'" adds Francisco.
Of course, Siargao is also the de facto surfing capital of the Philippines, so you have to hit the waves at least one time while you're there.
"I'd put surfing at the top of my list," says Roa. "We have the best waves here, at least in the Philippines. Autumn is the surfing season -- the month of October is the best because the waves are massive."
Another not-to-miss experience, he says, is the Magpupungko tidal pool, a natural rock formation that fills with water at high tide.
"It's like being in a swimming pool right by the ocean," says Roa. "The water is really beautiful, it looks emerald or aqua in the sun."
Though it would be easy to pack your itinerary with day trips and excursions, Roa says it's equally important to save some time to relax and get to know people.
"What sets Siargao apart from other amazing islands in the Philippines is the local community. It's so vibrant and the people are just amazing, very grounded and attached to their roots," he says.
"It is really easy for foreigners to get to know people and fall in love with Siargao and the local scene here, because of the locals themselves."