The horror and the wonder of jellyfish

As a child, I lived in dread of jellyfish. As an adult, my horror turned to wonderment, love and awe.

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I lived in dread of jellyfish as a child. Sometimes, swimming in the silty water of the North Sea off the Suffolk coast on my summer holidays, I felt the unmistakable, horrid sensation of my skin brushing against the smooth, gelatinous surface of a compass jellyfish or moon jelly. My stomach turned and my skin prickled with a horror that was never just the fear of being stung.

Frankly, jellyfish freaked me out. I loved the natural world, but I couldn’t see how jellyfish fit in it. To me they were incomprehensible, alien things; transparent matter that seemed only vaguely alive. I felt a faint echo of that childhood panic when I opened Spineless and read Juli Berwald’s description of the first time she saw wild jellyfish – hundreds of thousands of them in a tidal stream in Hiroshima, moving past her in a seemingly endless flow of pink, pulsing life. But I read on, and it didn’t take long before this thoroughly engaging book turned my old horror into wonderment, and by its end into something close to love and awe.

Spineless is a book of many parts. It is an excellent natural history of jellyfish. Berwald describes how they are the most economical swimmers of all living creatures, and that they are opportunistic feeders on plankton, fish and fish eggs, crustaceans, and even other jellyfish. Stinging cells on their tentacles stun or kill their prey; these tiny poison darts deliver toxins that can resemble snake or spider venom, or toxins resembling no others at all. Some are terrifyingly potent. Chironex fleckeri, a box jellyfish from Indonesia and Australia, can kill an unwary swimmer in three minutes.

Berwald explains that some species glow to signal their distress, and that alongside jellyfish live a host of other organisms, turning them into tiny ecosystems, worlds of life moving through the open seas. We learn, too, of the curious life-cycle of jellyfish. To begin with it seems unremarkable: females produce eggs, males produce sperm. But once the eggs are fertilised, things get weird. They hatch into larvae resembling furry Tic Tacs. Anchoring themselves upon the underside of rocks, boat hulls, bits of ocean-borne plastic or the wood of seaside docks, they turn into stick-like tubes called polyps able to clone themselves and live for many years until shifts in water salinity or temperature make them change once more. From their tops, like biological Pez dispensers, they release stacks of miniature ephyrae that look like tiny, swimming snowflakes or tissue-paper doilies; it is these that mature into the medusae we know as jellyfish.

Carefully and insistently, Berwald’s book reveals to us that the world is wider and vastly stranger than we know, and that some jellyfish can even turn time backwards. When damaged or dying, they are able to revert their “cooked” cells back to stem cells. These grow into polyps before budding off ephyrae to make themselves anew. Reading about the everyday lives of jellyfish, it turns out, can play merry hell with our understanding of the nature of life, death, even of time itself.

The book is structured in the form of Berwald’s own personal quest to find out more about jellyfish and their place on our warming planet. Once an oceanic scientist, she turned to writing textbooks and articles and raising a growing family. As the years passed her fascination for jellyfish was kindled and burned ever more brightly; the book relates her search for experts in all manner of fields to find out more about these creatures. She experiences the capsicum-like crunch of well-prepared edible jellyfish, discovers the difficulties of keeping live moon jellies in a home aquarium – when they die they dissolve – and accompanies fishermen in Japan who haul giant jellyfish out of the ocean, arriving back at the airport to fly home still smelling of seawater and traces of blue, iridescent jellyfish goo.

This quest is joyously hands-on; it exists alongside and as part of her family life, and the book is written with a combination of scientific accuracy and human warmth that is deeply refreshing. So often we assume that science is a realm restricted to cool institutional minds; personal passions for organisms are hardly ever evidenced in the prose of scientific papers. Berwald shows us a kind of natural science in which beauty and wonder, scientific investigation and the varied shapes of human lives are bound closely together. I love Spineless for that, and also for its inspiring call to follow your own star – in Berwald’s case, one made mostly of gelatin and water, whose ambulant pulsing, when watched, matches the beat of human hearts. As the book progresses, Berwald’s jellyfish become creatures with deep metaphorical, as well as ecological, meaning.

Jellyfish are increasingly caught up in concerns about the ecological health of our acidifying, warming oceans. Jellyfish blooms have caused blackouts by blocking power station intakes with millions of pulsing bodies. Frequently blamed on climate change, Berwald reveals that causality in the ocean is complicated, and it’s not easy to reach clear conclusions about the reasons for these blooms. Nevertheless, they are often associated with the arrival of invasive species, and can be a terrifying symptom of ecological collapse, with once-healthy fisheries, like those in Namibian waters, turned to seas full of goo.

While jellyfish science is now thriving, they were long understudied by marine experts who until the 1970s tended to pour bleach on jellyfish clogging their nets, choosing to work only on those organisms durable enough to survive being hauled from the seas. It’s the kind of observation that illustrates how the questions we ask of the natural world are shaped by the ways we interact with and sample it. Berwald is thoughtful on the ethics of science, too: her careful exposition of George Romanes’ 19th-century jellyfish vivisections are hard to stomach once she has given you to understand that jellyfish are far from vacant, pulsing bags of water, but beings with diffuse, distributed sensory systems, despite their lack of a centralised brain, and which possess several eyes, each designed to look for particular things above the water and below.

 Most of all, Spineless is driven by the most important question facing environmental scientists today: how to communicate the dire situation our planet is in, with climate change and oceans 30 per cent more acidic than they were a century ago, and how to turn that concern into action. “If you dare,” one scientist told her, “that kind of story is a real story.” Spineless has a keen eye for the troubled relationship between science and the public, politics and policy. The lack of any ecological risk assessment before the recent widening of the Suez Canal is only one of the examples she gives to show that ecological systems are often considered disposable in the quest to increase international trade.

Berwald gives us a clear sense of a scientific community that is committed to communicating environmental issues yet highly suspicious of media attention. One individual refuses to let Berwald tape their conversation after a previous encounter with a sensational TV documentary that traduced the complexity of his scientific research; his eventual, grudging acceptance of Berwald is a signal of relief to the reader.

This is a book full of wonders, and perhaps wonder is that crucial first step in forging our emotional connections to the natural world. We cannot fight for the existence of things that we don’t know exist in the first place. We fight to save things that inspire wonder in us, that hint at the complexity of the ecological systems of a planet that none of us can ever fully comprehend, but is our home. This compulsively readable book lights up the jellyfish and becomes its own luminous distress symbol: something that is both beautiful and a warning of danger, a flag to ask us for help.

Spineless: the Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone
Juli Berwald
Black Inc, 336pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Germany, alone