Home Resources

Beaches are jammed with jellies

2 June 2004

Thomas Schultz

Santa Barbara News-Press

Watch your step, beachgoers.

Ocean winds and waves in recent weeks have forced thousands of Velella Velella jellyfish, more commonly called by-the-wind sailors, ashore across portions of Santa Barbara County.

It's a phenomenon repeated up and down the California coast, but a sight not seen every year, scientists say.

"They can be found most anywhere," said Bruce Beebe, a retired biology teacher who has observed the stranded, dead creatures on the beach near his Vandenberg Village home since March.

Where they land, "It's just by chance," he said. And whether they will come, "It's really hit-or-miss."

Though they do sting small prey, the stranded creatures are harmless to humans - unlike other jellyfish equipped to inflict a painful punch.

"Nothing like the Portuguese man-of-war," was how UCSB marine biologist James Case described the Velella Velella.

"They are, periodically, extremely common," he added. "They have been seen, more or less, somewhere all along the coast from Northern California to Southern California."

They catch wind and move atop the sea. Each is aided by a deep-blue float about 3 inches in diameter that is topped with a triangular sail.

Strandings are accidents, caused when prevailing winds shift and send the animals toward land rather than the open ocean.

By-the-wind sailors often drift across the ocean's surface in large numbers, sometimes in the tens of thousands, according to researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Each jellyfish is actually made up of several individual invertebrates, making them a colonial animal. Some members feed for the colony, using their tentacles to capture plankton. Others serve a reproductive function.

Jim Covel, manager of interpretive programs at the aquarium, said he's seen plenty of the creatures around Monterey recently and has taken reports of more in San Francisco and Marin County.

"From the beach ecology standpoint, these events bring in lots of nutrients to a beach community," Mr. Covel said, adding that small invertebrates that live beneath the sand feed on the rotting jellies.

Millions of the jellyfish inhabit California coastal waters, according to several estimates. They are not considered endangered despite the strandings.

Mr. Beebe said the scores he has seen at Surf Station Beach typically dry out after two to three days.