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27 september 2020

I don't think I've ever been stung by a jellyfish. I do remember an incident when I was young, on a beach somewhere: screaming, welts on somebody's leg, vinegar applied. It could have been me, but sometimes the trauma of something that happens to somebody else gets remembered as your own. In any case, I am wary of jellyfish, but they are low down the list of reasons why I don't swim in the ocean. Much higher: I don't swim well and I don't live near an ocean.

In Jellyfish, Peter Williams says that the vinegar, whoever it was splashed on, was probably a good idea. Urine, another home remedy for stings, is apparently useless. If you get stung by certain Australian jellyfish, all the vinegar and urine in the world won't help much: the pain is excruciating, the aftereffects debilitating, and a small percentage of the sufferers actually die. To make matters more sinister, the most venomous Australian jellyfish are too small to notice. You're just paddling along, and wham! your world is altered by a little blob of goo too simple to have a central nervous system.

Yet Williams explains that jellyfish do engage in calculated behaviors to their advantage. They don't move well, and spend some of their lifecycles attached to the ocean floor, but they can maneuver into currents to maximize their chances of finding food; and of course their complex luring and trapping behaviors are a wonder of the seas. Some jellyfish live in communities with complexly divided roles; others are in a strange sense immortal, continually recombining old elements of themselves into new individuals. Jellyfish press our notions of what constitutes living beings to their limits.

Jellyfish may be ubiquitous in the oceans, to an extent that has made some scientists wonder if they constitute the future of the seas. Jellyfish "bloom" and dominate local ecosystems; they are invasive; they live in areas of the sea where it was long assumed nothing can live at all. One of Williams' themes is that 95% of the Earth's oceans is still unknown to humans. Lotta jellyfish down there.

Unlike other ubiquitious creatures, rats or cockroaches or sardines, jellyfish have the attraction, to us at least, of being remarkably beautiful. Ernst Haeckel, the 19th-century biologist who followed his own drummer onto some very weird paths, became the leading illustrator of jellyfish, not always privileging strict anatomical detail. Haeckel's mesmerizing color depictions of these creatures are a kaleidoscopic trip through types of radial symmetry, and have inspired designers in media ranging from art glass to printmaking. Aquariums learned early in this century that a room full of tanks of glowing jellyfish was a better draw than the most charismatic of megafauna. The creatures have become a staple of the aquarium experience, at once gorgeous and free from the qualms that come with displaying fish, birds, or mammals.

Jellyfish are hard to get to know, hard to imagine your way into, and impossible to befriend. If they symbolize a kind of alien, posthuman future, they might also have their uses in prolonging our ascendancy. Many jellyfish are edible, and in fact they are an important echelon in the marine food structure. Dried and reconstituted, jellyfish are a source of protein that features in several world cuisines. Running out of room for plants, leery of consuming mammals, and exhausting our stocks of fish, we may find ourselves turning to jellyfish more and more – alongside insects and seaweed – for sustenance. Seems fair in the-stinger-bit sort of way, and it seems hard to imagine that seas could become over-jellyfished.

Williams, Peter. Jellyfish. London: Reaktion, 2020.