The Jellyfish Apocalypse

🐅 🐅 🐅 tiger tiger tiger for Ultimate December, New Year’s Eve.  On which Kyle Wohlmut finds his hopes for 2023 cruelly dashed, once again. On Facebook he reports:

sigh, another NYE, another disappointment…

(#1) HuffPost: “Jellyfish Apocalypse Not Coming… PHEW! (PHOTO): Most Reassuring Headline Ever” on 1/7/13

From the HuffPost piece:

Indie rock goddess Kristin Hersh, former leader of Throwing Muses, set all of our minds at ease over the weekend when she tweeted a photo of the reassuring headline above.

If you’re like us, you hadn’t really considered the possibility of a jellyfish apocalypse, but now that you have, it’s your single worst fear. But rest assured, as the headline says, it’s totally not happening.

But yes, the alarm, and the reassurance, are from January 2013, a decade ago. As it happens, the alarms, and the reassurances, have continued, year after year. While Kyle, expectant Destroyer of Marine Worlds, waiting for the Jellyfish Apocalypse, or Something Like It, keens:

How long, dear Jesus, oh! how long
Shall that bright hour delay;
Fly swiftly round, ye wheels of time,
And bring the promised day

— from the hymn Northfield (SH 155); see my 11/29/11 posting “Rudolph in Northfield”

Apocalypse tomorrow, but never Apocalypse today!

But seriously. From The Atlantic, Jan/Feb 2018 issue, “Imagining the Jellyfish Apocalypse: The stinging, gelatinous blobs could take over the world’s oceans” by Rebecca Giggs (this is long, and it’s not even the whole piece, but I admire Giggs’s style, and she has good stuff to say):

In my mid-20s, I spent three months living in Broome, a coastal township in Western Australia famous for its moonrises, pink beaches, and pearl farms. Each morning during what is known locally as “the buildup” (the hot, muggy weeks heralding the wet season), I would stuff a towel in a bag and trudge out to where the red pindan soil — distinctive to the Kimberley region — marbles powdery dunes, longing to dunk my body in the postcard sea. Often, I could go no farther than the water’s edge. Signs pitched by lifeguards along the beach showed a stick figure lashed by a mass of tentacles: Irukandji jellyfish.

By midday, the mercury might have drifted above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and still no one would dare to even dabble in the shallows of the jade ocean — corduroyed by waves — knowing that Irukandji had been detected. Back from the shoreline, a few tourists resolutely sweated their silhouettes onto beach chairs. If the notices were plucked from the sand in the afternoon, a tense choreography would ensue. Each heat-strained person would approach the surf and make an elaborate pantomime of applying sunscreen or stretching out hamstrings, hoping not to have to be the first to get in.

(#2) Warning sign from January 2019, when 18 beaches in Queensland were closed (photo:Alamy)

The most common Irukandji, Carukia barnesi, are the size of a chickpea, and because they’re colorless, in the ocean they’re more or less invisible. The smaller ones might appear to you as the residue of a sneeze. The Irukandji’s translucent bell, shaped like a tiny boxing glove, trails four tentacles, delicate as cotton thread and about three feet long.

(#3) Artful shot of floating Irukandji jellyfish (photo: Sam Howzit / Grist)

The jellyfish’s sting doesn’t hurt overmuch. The pain is perhaps equivalent to a mild static zap from a metal doorknob — hardly even enough to make you want to suck your finger. The C. barnesi does not leave red welts, as other jellyfish do. You might miss the prick of its microscopic, stinging darts. You might think it’s just the start of sunburn.

Worst-case scenario: You’re dead by the following sunset. There are thought to be 25 species of Irukandji. One species, Malo kingi, is commonly known as “the king slayer.” After the initial sting comes a procession of ever more dreadful symptoms: back pain, agitation, the sensation of crawling skin, vomiting. The heart can become arrhythmic. Fluid may build up in and around the lungs. Patients “beg their doctors to kill them, just to get it over with,” the marine biologist Lisa-ann Gershwin told ABC Radio National in 2007.

That desperation is often accompanied by one of the more striking indications of contact with an Irukandji jellyfish: a sense of impending doom. To the afflicted person, nothing seems likely to alleviate distress, no medical professional offers hope. The swimmer might not have seen or felt the sting, but if a touch point can be identified, the treatment is to splash the area with vinegar to neutralize any nematocyst cells on the skin’s surface. Then, if the malady progresses, morphine and antihypertensive drugs are administered. Very few people stung by an Irukandji will be so unlucky as to die, but at least one victim has compared the latter phases of envenomation to childbirth.

… Their delicacy notwithstanding, in recent decades jellyfish species have come to be thought of as the durable and opportunistic inheritors of our imperiled seas. Jellyfish blooms — the intermittent, and now widely reported, flourishing of vast swarms — are held by many to augur the depletion of marine biomes; they are seen as a signal that the oceans have been overwarmed, overfished, acidified, and befouled. These invasions are sometimes discussed as if they had the potential to culminate in ecophagy, the devouring of an ecosystem in gross. (Phage derives from the ancient Greek word meaning “to eat up.”) The vision — hat tipped to science fiction — is of the planet’s oceans transformed into something like an aspic terrine. In waters thickened by the gummy mucus of living and dead jellyfish, other sea life will be smothered. Because jellyfish recall the capsules of single-celled protozoa, this eventuality invites portrayal as a devolution of the marine world — a reversion to the “primordial soup.”

Not in the cards, Giggs explains, as others have done over decades. The vexing blooms will continue, but otherwise, life goes on. I find this comforting.

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