Dating back to my childhood, this is the cry for an inrush of jellyfish – in other words, get out of the sea. After another bloom this summer, the autumn sea deposits these beautiful stingers at its edge, carried in on the flood tide. The tide-line of dark-stained forms that straggle the beach are arctic Cyanea – colloquially the Lion’s Mane jellyfish – hundreds of which are carried here to their full stop, the landing point in the single year of their lives.
They are a little scary. Their stinging facility, I find out, does last when they’ve died, and they can grow alarmingly long tentacles – one jellyfish reputedly responsible for stinging 50 people in a day on a beach in New England in 2010. Their stings are unpleasant but rarely life-threatening, and should be treated with vinegar, as with a wasp sting.
It’s not really their stinging capacity that makes me hesitate around them, recoil a little; rather because they look so alien, so uncanny. Sprawled every which way and broken up on the sand, I can’t fathom any of the internal structures as organs I recognize. Looking closely there are vesicles that may pump liquid. They trail frills that spread into the sand. They are spilled ink.
On some there are jumbled clusters of Eighties-peach-colour berries, and I think these pockets contain the developing larvae that Rachel Carson describes in The Edge of the Sea – finally “shaken loose from the parent” or freed by its stranding on the shore. The robust larvae then seek a port in the storms of the winter seas, fixing and growing into a plantlike being. It fascinates me that these creatures oscillate in their lives between plant and animal – anchored then free.
(I think of the plant-like forms of ovaries and their budding; within us the ebb and flow of our own reproductive tides.)
The fixed form buds into little saucer jellies, which then produce sperm and eggs to form the larvae, and so on. The grown-up jellyfish I meet on the beach – the medusae – are magnificent and odd. I try to find one still alive, still pulsing in the shallows, but these ones have been broken before the shore. They don’t gasp, or throb; their death is quiet. I’m glad to have seen their passing.