Until recently, my close encounters with jelly fish (as I used to call them) occurred on the beach as I ran in bare feet trying to avoid them. Even dead, I believed they could sting the heck of me. What I didn’t know was that the jellies were not there on the sand by their own volition but essentially because they had little choice. There was a lot I didn’t know about jelly fish until last week when I took part in the newest Oregon Coast Aquarium encounter — the Sea Jelly Encounter.
In the past, I’ve been behind the scenes for all sorts of aquarium events. I’ve held hands, in a manner of speaking, with an octopus, shared a sea lion kiss (two, actually) and snorkeled in the big tank. I was lucky enough to be on scene for the introduction of five seven-gill sharks, two turkey vultures and at least two sea otters. I’ve witnessed the rehabilitation of sea turtles and feeding time for the sharks. Some of the events were stressful — like watching the staff carry 200-pound sharks up three flights of stairs; some suspenseful, like watching a sneaky sea otter creep along the exhibit deck to take a nibble from a staff member. Virtually all the encounters were memorable. Likewise, my latest.
Like the other encounters, the Sea Jelly Encounter takes place behind the scenes in a back room usually off limits to all but staff. It’s reached by a walk down a hall, over the sanitizing floor mat, past the next Octopus Encounter critter, Chloe, and to a room with numerous tanks, pulsating with moon jellies (Aurelia aurita) and sea nettles (kin to the sea jellies). They are brainless, boneless and heartless, and not particularly strong swimmers, which is why you see so many on the beach. The white or clear jellies can be male or female, but those with purple are female. The color indicates the female’s eggs have hatched and the babies, which our host Adam describes as looking like fuzzy jelly beans, are crawling all over them. The sea jellies are grown at the aquarium and dine on sea monkeys (remember those) and krill. They are 95 percent water or salt and the aquarium habitat are all oval tanks. Were they square, the sea jellies would get stuck in the corners. They live only six months in the wild, but can survive 10 to 12 years in captivity. See what happens when you don’t have to fight the current or dodge predators? They do sting, but Adam, assures me it’s so weak, humans can’t feel it.
It’s not that I don’t trust Adam (as much as I trust anyone), but after all these years of avoiding jelly fish, just reaching out and touching one seems less than wise. Still, after removing my rings, I march over to the sink as instructed, wash and sanitize my hands, and return to the tank, where the whitish blobs do their meditatingly beautiful dance. Adam lifts one in his hand and I, quite tentatively, reach in for a touch. I “touch” it about a half a dozen times before I realize I haven’t actually touched it. Then finally, I do. It feels like a not-too-firm piece of rubber or a stiff bit of gelatin, and no, I don’t feel the sting, though people with allergies to bees might be a bit sensitive.
The encounter also features jellies at various stages of life, and yes the babies do bear a resemblance to fuzzy jelly beans, and an explanation of their life cycle. I’ll skip a lot of detail, but let’s just say it starts with something like a mini turkey baster and progresses to what looks like an invertebrate version of a stack of dishes. One aquarium colony has been delivering new jellies since 2006.
So there, that’s what I know about moon jellies. I also know that the next time I am stressed, I am going to click on the video I made of them floating mindlessly, and allow myself to do the same. Oh, and let’s not forget the small print: Sea Jelly Encounters are available Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 2 pm. The cost is $20 for members and $25 for non members.
Lori Tobias is the author of the novel “Wander” and a journalist of many years. Follow her at loritobias.com.