"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Friday, October 14, 2011

Sweet Saltwater Ballet

During a brief spell of temporary insanity in the mid-1980s, I signed up for SCUBA diving lessons in Hawaii.  Me.  Non-swimmer, afraid of the water, terrified of sharks.

This was no swimming pool introduction to diving.  This was right out there in the salt water where those critters higher on the food chain looked on me as an entree.   

I laid awake nights, sweating in fear, at the thought of sharks and barracudas coming after me.  I knew I would forget everything about breathing underwater and die of pulmonary embolism if the shark didn’t get me first.  That was the longest week of my life.

I have never lost my fear of sharks.  

Turns out I should have been watching for danger elsewhere.  Not killer whales, sea lions, crocs, or gators, either.   I should have been looking for those semi-amorphous blobs called jellyfish.  Especially when I was merrily snorkeling in Australia, where the box jelly kills more people annually than any other marine creature.  Its tentacles contain enough toxin to kill 60 humans in three minutes.

Lion's Mane jellyfish

I saw my first Lion’s mane jelly this week on my afternoon walk to the dock.  I was watching the tiny moon jellies drifting by when an enormous orange-red blob caught my eye.  Its bell appeared smooth, but underneath was a mass of what looked like semi-masticated raw meat with white threads hanging from it.  Despite that image, it was beautiful and graceful as it spread its eight-lobed bell then contracted it, thus propelling itself through the water.

Under the bell with tentacles trailing.

Today, I saw three of them around the dock, a red and two large pale ones, of which one was an even larger specimen than the first I’d seen.  Given that water magnifies things, this one could have measured almost two feet across with tentacles trailing behind that disappeared in the deeps.  Those I could see appeared to be eight feet long, but I never saw their ends.

The bell seems to be almost two feet across with tentacles at least eight feet long.

The eight lobes of the bell.

Lion's mane jellies live only in cold waters, usually north of the 42nd parallel.  The Arctic Lion's mane jelly can grow to eight feet in diameter with tentacles 120 feet long.  The box jelly of Australia, however, dwarfs the Lion's mane with a growth potential of 12 feet in diameter and tentacles that break away and float.  Even then they are just as deadly.

Moon jellies

Lion’s mane jellies, so named for that mass beneath the bell and its resemblance to a lion’s mane, live only a year.   They are carnivorous, eating zooplankton, small fish….and sometimes moon jellies.  Conversely, jellies are eaten by sea birds, large fish, other jellies, and sea turtles.

Moon jelly

Another moon jelly.

And now, the sweet ballet of a Lion's mane jellyfish.


  1. I had no idea there are cold-water jelly fish. These are remarkably beautiful. My only experience with jellies (somehow sounds nicer than jelly fish) has been in the warm Gulf waters. Small ones, mostly, and when a wave washes them over you or you inadvertently walk into them and get stung, it feels like a small dose of electroshock, very tingly (but not the pleasant kind of tingle).