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Jellyfish such as these Northeast Pacific sea nettles in Monterey Bay Aquarium, are brainless, bloodless and mostly aimless. (John Lee / Aurora Select)

Jellyfish: The Next King of the Sea

As the world's oceans are degraded, will they be dominated by jellyfish?

About a dozen jellyfish varieties with firm bells are considered desirable food. Stripped of tentacles and scraped of mucous membranes, jellyfish are typically soaked in brine for several days and then dried. In Japan, they are served in strips with soy sauce and (ironically) vinegar. The Chinese have eaten jellies for 1,000 years (jellyfish salad is a wedding banquet favorite). Lately, in an apparent effort to make lemons into lemonade, the Japanese government has encouraged the development of haute jellyfish cuisine—jellyfish caramels, ice cream and cocktails—and adventuresome European chefs are following suit. Some enthusiasts compare the taste of jellyfish to fresh squid. Pauly says he’s reminded of cucumbers. Others think of salty rubber bands.

The main edible variety in U.S. waters, cannonball jellies, are found on the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina to Florida and in the Gulf of Mexico. They scored quite high on a “hedonic scale” of color and texture in a study led by Auburn University. Another scientific paper hailed jellyfish flesh—which is 95 percent water, a few grams of protein, the barest hint of sugar, and, once dried, only 18 calories per 100-gram serving—as “the ultimate modern diet food.”

The research vessel Point Lobos heaves in the swells of Monterey Bay. After a two-hour ride from shore, the engine idles as a crane lowers the Ventana, an unmanned submarine stocked with a dozen glass collecting jars, into the water. As the submarine begins its descent into the canyon, its cameras feed footage to computer monitors in the boat’s dark control room. Widmer and other scientists watch from a semicircle of armchairs. Widmer is allotted only a few trips on the MBARI submarine each year for his research; his eyes are shining with anticipation.

On the screens we see the bright green surface water darken by degrees to deep purple, then black. White flecks of detritus called marine snow rush past, like a star field in warp speed. The submarine drops 1,000, 1,500, 5,000 feet. We are en route to what Widmer has modestly named the Widmer Site, a jellyfish mecca on the lip of an undersea cliff.

Our spotlight illuminates a Gonatus squid, which clenches itself into an anxious red fist. Giant gray-green Humboldt squid sail by, like the ghosts of spent torpedoes. Glimmering beings appear. They seem to be constructed of spider webs, fishing line and silk, soap bubbles, glow sticks, strands of Christmas lights and pearls. Some are siphonophores and gelatinous organisms I’ve never seen before. Others are tiny jellyfish.

Every now and then, Widmer squints at an iridescent speck, and—if it isn’t too delicate, and the gonads look ripe—asks the pilot of the remote-controlled sub to give chase. “I don’t know what it is, but it looks promising,” he says. We bear down on jellyfish the size of jingle bells and gumdrops, slurping them up with a suction device.

“Down the tube!” Widmer cries in triumph.

“In the bucket!” the pilot agrees.

The whole boat crew pauses to stare at the screen and marvel at a piece of kelp studded with fuzzy pink anemones. We snatch a jelly here, a jelly there, including a mysterious one with a strawberry-colored center, always keeping a sharp eye out for polyps.

The submersible sails over the wreck of a blue whale, a gigantic rockfish curled up like a cat beside the great skull. We pass a frilly albino sea cucumber and a Budweiser can. We see squat lobsters and spot prawns, bleached sea stars, black owl fish, bouncy coils of eggs, a pale pink orb with tarantula-like legs, lemon-yellow mermaid’s purses, English sole, starry flounders and the purple bullet shapes of sharks. The California sunshine seems dismal in comparison.

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About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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