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Some are transparent as sandwich wrap, others glow in the dark. Some recline upside down on the ocean floor, harvesting whatever moves through their pulsating tentacles. Jellyfish existed five hundred million years ago in the same gelatinous, blind, brainless forms found today. Before organisms with bones or teeth evolved, jellyfish ruled a simpler ocean ecosystem, and have survived all five mass extinctions.
Jellyfish go wherever currents pull them, up and down the water column, propelled by tides into commercial ports and recreational beaches—frequently, into the water intakes of fish farms and the cooling systems of nuclear reactors and desalination plants. Jellyfish can eat anything, and when parts of a complex food chain are wiped out by factory fishing ships, agricultural runoff, and industrial effluvia, various jellyfish species move into the resulting “dead zones” and consume everything that remains. Such oxygen depleted waters are really only habitable by jellyfish and certain sea worms. They have at least a dozen ways of reproducing themselves, including autofertilization. In ideal conditions, billions of jellyfish blossom from tiny dormant spawn, sometimes feasting themselves to the size of pickup trucks. They can also shrink back into the polyp stage when food becomes scarce. This makes certain species theoretically immortal.
It occurred to me that I had never seen an actual jellyfish. I thought I ought to film some, and put them in a movie I was making about a derelict prison complex on an island in southwest Cuba. The two subjects somehow belonged together.
I went to the New York Aquarium in Coney Island, but when I got there I was told the shark and jellyfish displays were closed until 2016. The next day I was flying to Miami, where I found a few hours to visit the Seaquarium, which was spectacular, but had no jellyfish. Finally I found some, first at Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada in Toronto, and, a month later, discovering that my footage was ruined, even more varieties in the Vancouver Aquarium in Stanley Park.
Watching jellyfish swirl around in thoughtfully designed aquarium tanks, their translucent caps fibrillating as if taking breaths, their tentacles streaming at impossible lengths, tangling up and untangling, I thought they swam with uncanny grace. Even large ones with fluffy innards spilling from their domes look less like clumps of mucus than like feather boas.
They aren’t swimming, or dancing. Jellyfish are motile. They sting and eat what collides with them. They proliferate like the plastic debris that turns up in the stomachs of sea gulls. Yet they are bewitching. Tanks of them decorate restaurants and executive office suites. Lisa-ann Gershwin, author of Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean and a biologist with the Australian Marine Stinger Advisory Services, likens them to weeds. People who live in port towns call them cockroaches of the sea.
Our notions of beauty don’t coincide with the perfection of nature. They change seasonally. The beauty of the Titanic story is not the ship but the iceberg. It was simply part of a planet indifferent to human ambitions. Jellyfish are markers of geological rather than historical time, and proof that the earth is more beautiful than we are.
As he stood there shivering and uncomprehending, she had no recourse but to conclude with the obvious: “The heat. She was convinced. She thought she would be able to see it.”
A few summers ago I found a vertebra on a beach. Normally I don’t have a taste for bone collecting, but while on this beach and holding this bone I thought, My animal self is very happy here. I wasn’t a mess of a person, I was one of the key taxonomies, I was a member of a food chain, I had hair that registered the wind speed.