• Otter Views: Jellyfish

    by Tom Stevens

    Crumbling the last of the old loaf for the resident crows, I walked to Pavel’s Bakery the other morning to line up for fresh bread.

    I’ve learned to go early in the day, when the crows’ preferred flavor is still available. They like the farmer’s three-seed loaf.

    Bread in hand, I was sauntering back down the block when a flotilla of big, blue jellyfish caught my eye. Suspended in a florist’s windows, they shimmered demurely in the drizzly morning light. Crafted from puffs of voile, ropes of yarn and glittery strands of costume jewelry, the jellyfish floated above blue-green currents of some sparkly, artfully gathered fabric.

    As I admired the florist’s window, the Dutch door admitted a faint breeze, and the jellyfish started moving in unison, like a slow-motion undersea corps de ballet. It was a Walt Disney moment.

    The florist’s display provided a soothing anti-venom following recent coverage of ocean swimmer Diana Nyad’s fourth bid to swim from Cuba to Florida.

    Like her earlier third attempt, this one failed not for lack of preparation, courage, logistical support or stamina, but because of too many jellyfish stings.

    For this fourth attempt to swim the 90 miles separating Cuba and the Florida Keys, Nyad wore a sting-resistant bodysuit and special facial protection. Only her lips were exposed, but that was enough.

    After plying the water for 40 hours through storms and currents, Nyad was finally pulled out by an escort team worried her body had absorbed too much toxin. Photos taken at that time showed painfully swollen lips and a face as puffy as a post-fight boxer’s.

    Answering media queries later about what had halted a promising effort, Nyad replied in three words: “Too many jellyfish.”

    In a PBS News Hour segment, the 63-year-old swimmer told an interviewer “the oceans are different now” from when she started open water swimming in her youth. In earlier crossings, she said, her principal concerns were sharks, storms, currents and exhaustion. She encountered jellyfish as well, but not in the swarms of recent years.

    Diana Nyad is only one observer of ocean changes. But her experience over several decades of salt water distance swimming corroborates something marine scientists are finding in other ocean environments: an explosion of jellies.

    As global climate change causes the oceans to grow warmer and more acidic, some researchers posit that new water chemistry will doom some species but give others a boost. Jellyfish are among the likeliest to thrive. Some scientists even forecast an oceanic dystopia where vast fleets of vampire jellies darken otherwise barren seas.

    If things reach that point, it could sink the jellies’ buoyant public image hereabouts. From florist windows to foam and plastic miniatures twirling from porch rails, jellyfish abide in PG. You don’t have to spend much time here to realize this is a jelly-friendly town.

    Every year, Pacific Grove elementary students don multi-colored, many-layered outfits fashioned from recycled plastics. Then they form up as a jubilant “moon jellyfish” contingent in the spring parade. As they wobble through town with their streamers fluttering, the crowd murmurs “Awww,” not “Ahhhh!!!!”

    Meanwhile, jellyfish also get star billing at one of the region’s leading economic drivers, the Monterey Aquarium. There an entire room showcases jellies in all their dazzling diversity and filamentary finery. Faces close to the glass, viewers watch the back-lit jellies pulse and drift in eerie silence, as if free-falling through space.

    But those are captive jellies, dancing in an alien enclosure for air-breathing admirers. Out in their own world, as Diana Nyad suggests, the jellies are massing in unprecedented numbers. If we air-breathers need a prompt to reduce our carbon footprint, Nyad’s latest swim could serve as the stinger.


    posted to Cedar Street Times on August 31, 2012

    Topics: Otter Views


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