’Imagining the Jellyfish Apocalypse,’
The Atlantic, January/February 2018.
Edited by Ann Hulbert
A review of Juli Berwald’s Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone (Riverhead, 2018).
In my mid-20s, I spent three months living in Broome, a coastal township in Western Australia famous for its moonrises, pink beaches, and pearl farms. Each morning during what is known locally as “the buildup” (the hot, muggy weeks heralding the wet season), I would stuff a towel in a bag and trudge out to where the red pindan soil—distinctive to the Kimberley region—marbles powdery dunes, longing to dunk my body in the postcard sea. Often, I could go no farther than the water’s edge. Signs pitched by lifeguards along the beach showed a stick figure lashed by a mass of tentacles: Irukandji jellyfish.
By midday, the mercury might have drifted above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and still no one would dare to even dabble in the shallows of the jade ocean—corduroyed by waves—knowing that Irukandji had been detected. Back from the shoreline, a few tourists resolutely sweated their silhouettes onto beach chairs. If the notices were plucked from the sand in the afternoon, a tense choreography would ensue. Each heat-strained person would approach the surf and make an elaborate pantomime of applying sunscreen or stretching out hamstrings, hoping not to have to be the first to get in.
The most common Irukandji, Carukia barnesi, are the size of a chickpea, and because they’re colorless, in the ocean they’re more or less invisible. The smaller ones might appear to you as the residue of a sneeze. The Irukandji’s translucent bell, shaped like a tiny boxing glove, trails four tentacles, delicate as cotton thread and about three feet long. The jellyfish’s sting doesn’t hurt overmuch. The pain is perhaps equivalent to a mild static zap from a metal doorknob—hardly even enough to make you want to suck your finger. The C. barnesi does not leave red welts, as other jellyfish do. You might miss the prick of its microscopic, stinging darts. You might think it’s just the start of sunburn.
Worst-case scenario: You’re dead by the following sunset. There are thought to be 25 species of Irukandji. One species, Malo kingi, is commonly known as “the king slayer.” After the initial sting comes a procession of ever more dreadful symptoms: back pain, agitation, the sensation of crawling skin, vomiting. The heart can become arrhythmic. Fluid may build up in and around the lungs. Patients “beg their doctors to kill them, just to get it over with,” the marine biologist Lisa-ann Gershwin told ABC Radio National in 2007.
That desperation is often accompanied by one of the more striking indications of contact with an Irukandji jellyfish: a sense of impending doom. To the afflicted person, nothing seems likely to alleviate distress, no medical professional offers hope. The swimmer might not have seen or felt the sting, but if a touch point can be identified, the treatment is to splash the area with vinegar to neutralize any nematocyst cells on the skin’s surface. Then, if the malady progresses, morphine and antihypertensive drugs are administered. Very few people stung by an Irukandji will be so unlucky as to die, but at least one victim has compared the latter phases of envenomation to childbirth.
There may be as many as 4,800 different species of jellyfish. Not every kind possesses a sting that is perceptible to humans. Individual jellyfish are fragile creatures. Being composed largely of soft collagen, they easily tear. In a net or bunted along a reef by a storm surge, jellyfish are soon shredded. Washed ashore, they evaporate, leaving only a remnant halo of mesoglea (the jellyfish’s gluey core). Organized water: That was one 19th-century naturalist’s minifying description of the jellyfish. The creature’s wispy anatomy confers on it the specific beauty of the readily destroyed, a quality that elicits comparisons to things that are empty and lambent—light bulbs, dropped lingerie, a nebular constellation, the cellophane wrappers from hotel soaps, dribbles of wax.
How appealing it is to fashion metaphors out of a jellyfish. The animal is all stimulus, sensuousness without consciousness. Such evanescent creatures pose none of the anthropomorphizing complications of, say, octopuses. An octopus will regard you with features that resemble a face, and an intelligence that we’ve been advised is akin to that of dogs and dolphins. Most jellyfish are see-through, so we can tell they don’t have minds of their own to speak of. Eyeless, bloodless, brainless—jellyfish are more than alien enough to comfortably objectify.
Their delicacy notwithstanding, in recent decades jellyfish species have come to be thought of as the durable and opportunistic inheritors of our imperiled seas. Jellyfish blooms—the intermittent, and now widely reported, flourishing of vast swarms—are held by many to augur the depletion of marine biomes; they are seen as a signal that the oceans have been overwarmed, overfished, acidified, and befouled. These invasions are sometimes discussed as if they had the potential to culminate in ecophagy, the devouring of an ecosystem in gross. (Phage derives from the ancient Greek word meaning “to eat up.”) The vision—hat tipped to science fiction—is of the planet’s oceans transformed into something like an aspic terrine. In waters thickened by the gummy mucus of living and dead jellyfish, other sea life will be smothered. Because jellyfish recall the capsules of single-celled protozoa, this eventuality invites portrayal as a devolution of the marine world—a reversion to the “primordial soup.”