California’s beaches are turning purple with the bodies of dead sea creatures, and members of the public as well as the media are panicking. What’s going on? Is the world coming to an end? What’s happening to cause this unprecedented bloom, and is it a sign of something more sinister?
Actually, no — though the increased media attention and public concern are unusual, there’s nothing weird about these particular beach visitors.
They look like jellyfish, but these marine organisms actually aren’t — not that it makes much of a difference to many people walking on beaches along the West Coast of the United States. By-the-wind sailors (also known as Sea Rafts, or Velella velella) are washing ashore in droves, and some media outlets, as well as members of the public, are wondering where they came from and what’s driving them on to shore. No, it’s not an alien invasion, although you might be forgiven for thinking so when you see beaches covered in the tiny blue-purple animals.
The life of Velella velella starts in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, when hundreds of creatures get together to form a colony, creating what’s known as a hydrozoan, and these creatures are carried by wind patterns (hence their common name) to cluster in mass colonies off the shores of the West Coast. Such blooms are in fact common, especially in the summer, and some organisms do wash on shore, but usually not in such unprecedented numbers, or this late. Social media, however, are exploding with reports of the tiny creatures, but in fact, scientists say, the perfectly earthly visitors have a reasonable explanation.
“[Strandings] are common, happen to a certain degree pretty much every year, and have been happening for a long time, probably even long before there were humans here to notice it. Some years there are more washing up than in other years, this just seems to be a good year for it…[They are] also not a special indicator of ‘something wrong’ with the ocean or its ecosystems. Stuff happens, and this just seems to be a good year for Velella to wash up (but not a good year for those particular Velella, of course).”
So go the facts of life; Velella velella are being blown ashore by winds, which are highly variable, because they live at the mercy of the wind, moving by means of the sails embedded into their bodies. Unfortunately for them, once they get on shore, they can’t catch a ride back out to the ocean, and they dry out quickly. Like many marine organisms, their bodies don’t retain water because they’re surrounded by it, and they have no evolutionary reason to do so. Even the wind patterns associated with their movement on shore aren’t necessarily a precedent for something ominous, because wind patterns do change, and aren’t necessarily linked with climate change or other environmental events.
In the meantime, beachgoers might want to avoid handling these dying beach residents. In addition to being a bit unpleasant to touch, they also carry a venom that can irritate mucous membranes. While accidentally stepping on or touching a by-the-wind sailor isn’t going to result in a painful episode, handling them and thoughtlessly touching the eyes, nose, or mouth might result in an unhappy experience. For those who do come into contact with a by-the-wind sailor, it’s a good idea to wash thoroughly with cool water and soap, and those who notice irritation should contact a doctor.
The situation is a classic example of a normal environmental phenomenon blown out of proportion by concerned members of the public and media trafficking on what seems like a good story. When something seemingly unusual happens in the environment, it may have a lot of explanations — and not all of them are sinister. Sometimes, all it means is that you never noticed that particular iteration of the natural world before.
Photo credit: Dan.