When living, Velella are purplish-blue, a color they derive from their diet. Apparently their indigo tint is a mechanism to deal with the incredible amount of sun they are exposed to, from above and from the sea's reflections. See the General natural history section here for more.
Depending on where you do your research (or, which branch of the Internet you browse), you may learn that:
- Velella is a communal organism (chondrophore) -- each tentacle is a separate living thing, and all tentacles floating in the same connected unit are actually just helping eachother out (like a Portuguese Man-o-War);
~ or ~
- Velella is a single organism (hydroid polyp) -- each floating body is its own separate living thing. Apparently, this is what more recent research has revealed, but I could not find that research, and it is easier to find seemingly reputable sources that claim the former.
Regardless, this summer seems to be a particularly "good" (depending on how you look at it) summer for Valella observations. They are washing up on the beaches all over the West Coast this year. They're such a popular observation that even the San Francisco Chronicle has covered them recently.
Although I haven't seen them in the four previous springs I've spent here, they are apparently a fairly common vernal phenomenon in the Pacific Northwest and points south. But it's currently August and they continue to wash up, since starting in mid-July. According to this article, jellyfish in general currently abound in our oceans, and it's probably due to an imbalance in the ocean's overall health. It is also an El Niño year, but apparently its effects are expected to be mild, if anything at all, this year. Here's a great blog post explaining all that.
This morning, Catey and I observed them at Tennessee Beach. This small pocket beach has uplands immediately adjacent to it -- so as they have dried, the Velella have blown up into the coastal scrub. This creates a curious sight -- round, papery white jellyfish skeletons on the coastal hills. As Catey observed, it looks as if trash had been dumped on the beach.
The skeletons are tough and pliable, more resembling plastic than paper. The crafty might find a way to stitch them together into clothing or bags.
"Ah, to be brainless and worry-free" was a comment I recently wrote to my good friend Toni in a discussion we were having last week about Velella. The closing sentence in the Farallones newsletter article (also linked above) led me to this chuckle of a conclusion. These creatures' fates are solely determined by the shape of the sail that their genetic makeup creates on their backs. For the philosophical, this birthright is one worth exploring and pondering (to what coast would I have drifted if I were born a brown-haired lefty?), as we reflect on the vast scope of the natural world in both space and time.
All photos on this post were shot by me at Rodeo Beach, Marin County, California, 8/14/14, on an old roll of Mitsubishi MX-II 100 ASA film.