I somehow feel that the California coast has entered a blue period. Like Picasso. I first noticed this trend on the beaches near Prairie Creek, far north California. Small, plastic yet organic-looking pieces of something indigo-tinged that had washed up on the sand kept distracting me as I trudged along. Finally, I squatted down to inspect and decided they looked like some kind of jelly fish. But not. Maybe some type of clam, or mussel dislodged from it’s shell, but that was wrong too. Though I have never lived directly on the ocean, the Pacific has always been a dominating factor in my life – camping trips as a child, lonely, wind-full walks as an adolescent, and always, always tide pooling. I had never seen these things before, at least not in my conscious memory, so I felt curious, and slightly worried.
Brushing it off, I focused on the walk back to the car – another four miles – and decided to research it when I finally got home. I forgot. Then, a few weeks ago, I was at Ocean Beach, in San Francisco, and I saw them again. This time I touched one. The clear plastic-like mohawk intrigued me and was hard but almost squishy at the same time. I vowed I would get to the bottom of this. I forgot, of course, as soon as I got home.
It turns out I must be living under a rock, because California social media has been ablaze with these things for weeks. They’ve turned the coastline entirely blue in some areas. Instagram, IFLScience, Huffinton Post, and even the Los Angeles Times has run amuck with what I know now to be Velella velella. They are fascinating creatures. While some news outlets seem to think they are rather disgusting, I would have to disagree.
My initial research suggested that science had decided that, not unlike coral, Velella was a collection of animal organisms in a small colony. This is what Wikipedia says, as does several of the other articles and videos I’ve watched. However, an article on BayNature written in 2014, by a naturalist Michael Ellis, says that careful research has now concluded that they are in fact individual animals, just incredibly complex. This was reiterated to me when I read another article in OneWorldOneOcean, by Sarah Bedolfe, written in 2013.
This is not the only mystery about these creatures. One scientist said they haven’t been seen in around 8 years, while another says that the bloom is just a little later than normal. Regardless, all seem to agree that while unusual, this invasion shouldn’t be alarming and is well within the bounds of nature. In addition, there isn’t much known about the little creatures themselves. While their basic life cycle is known, where and exactly how they do this lifecycle stuff is up for debate.
For example, each of the little sails either goes from left to right, or from right to left. Depending on the sail (lefties vs. righties) they are in different parts of the world. Sails angled to the right end up along the cost of California because of wind – but just the right type of wind so that they normally stay afloat in the ocean and not on our shores. Lefties, on the other hand, end up on the other side of the Pacific in Japan, Korea, etcetera. Do all Velella produce offspring that have both sails, and they are torn apart at adulthood like some terrible soap opera? Sailboats at the mercy of the wind? Or do lefties produce lefties and righties only rights? Like a society rife with social segregation. As Ellis points out, we don’t know.
Perhaps, like Picasso’s Blue Period – those three years of anguished painting – the Velella velella will experience a newfound revival in our generation because of this mass death, and these mysteries will be solved. For now, here are just a couple pictures of these fascinating and mysterious blue creatures, and one of the ocean because I couldn’t help myself.