lien invasions ... giant, stinging tentacles ... the Dead Zone. It sounds like a 1950s horror movie. But it's not. It's real life in the Gulf of Mexico, where, in May 2000, throngs of alien jellyfish gathered near the Mississippi-Louisiana border.
By August 2000, millions of these white, translucent invaders dotted hundreds of square miles of the brown gulf waters, undulating with the gentle swells and slowly pulsing their bell-shaped bodies. Gorging on plankton blooms, fish eggs, and larvae, they swiftly ballooned from their usual grapefruit-like size into twenty-five-pound lunkers as big as soccer balls. Known as spotted jellyfish, these natives of Australia have historically been strangers to the Gulf of Mexico. But that summer, they were packed so closely together that in some places a person could have stepped from one to another. "There's miles and miles of them," observed George Barish, a Louisiana shrimper, during the height of the crisis. "I traveled all the way from Half Moon Bay past the Gulfport ship channel [about 40 miles], and I couldn't throw my nets over once."
The gulf is not the only area earning a reputation as a jellyfish hot spot. Many of the world's ecologically compromised waters, from Antarctic seas to tropical lagoons, are being inundated by these invertebrates. In 1999, enough jellyfish to fill fifty trucks were sucked from the ocean by the cooling system of a power plant in the Philippines. The creatures shut down the plant, plunged 40 million people into darkness, and started rumors of a coup d'état. In Japan, power plant staffs have been preventing similar blackouts by collecting jellyfish that accumulate near the intake pipes. But so massive are the globular hauls that their rancid odor makes area residents sick.
Beach officials are reporting increasing jellyfish populations along all U.S. coastlines. Several years ago, about 100,000 beachgoers near Miami were stung by jellyfish during a single week.
Such reports resonate for me personally, because I remember the shore off Long Island, New York -- sans jellyfish -- during my visits there as a child in the 1970s. But by the 1980s, the jellyfish had arrived. Swimming in Long Island's waters increasingly meant harassment by these gossamer ghosts, whose transparency was belied by their sometimes stinging, always creepy contact with exposed skin. When I describe the experience to other swimmers, they invariably tell me about how their favorite beaches are similarly surrendering to jellyfish. By all accounts, these creatures -- boneless, brainless, bloodless, and successfully oceangoing for 650 million years -- are annually appearing on many beaches in larger numbers, and earlier in the summer, than ever before.
To me, the ability of jellyfish to overpopulate so many ecosystems simultaneously represents hard (if squishy) evidence that the meek are indeed inheriting the earth. To scientists, jellyfish blooms represent a vexing ecological puzzle. "We want to know exactly what causes jellyfish blooms around the world," says Monty Graham, a senior marine scientist at Alabama's Dauphin Island Sea Lab. In 2000, Graham helped organize the International Conference on Jellyfish Blooms in Gulf Shores, Alabama, a first-of-its-kind meeting featuring scientists from thirteen countries.
Graham is a soft-spoken, affable, down-to-earth authority on Gulf of Mexico jellyfish who extols the mysteries of these creatures just as carefully and enthusiastically to the ordinary public as to highbrow research funders. Like many other jelly- ologists, Graham leavens his work with jelly-based jocularity. His office is festooned with jellyfish cartoons, and on his right calf is a multicolored jellyfish tattoo, an anniversary gift from his wife.
"I'm often asked whether a single, overarching condition is triggering jellyfish blooms in diverse locations," says Graham. Discussions at the jellyfish blooms conference reinforced his suspicion that these swarms, which he calls "symptoms of environmental problems," each result from unique interactions between local ecology and environmental stresses. Though the exact nature of the environmental stresses varies from place to place, they often reflect human disruptions.