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Jellyfish Invade! (Don't Quiver)

By-the-Wind Sailors, whose tentacles pose little risk to humans, are littering the beaches. Biggest problem: the smell.

May 03, 2003|Denise M. Bonilla | Times Staff Writer

Right now, they are only shipwrecked sailors, their mangled vessels strewn across the sands of Newport Beach. But they will be back.

Velella Velella, a type of jellyfish also known as the By-the-Wind Sailor, made its seasonal debut on Southern California shores last week. Hundreds of thousands of the gelatinous creatures washed up near Newport Beach, drawing curious passersby.

"They were everywhere -- the shore was covered with them," said Josh Minkes, 25, of Newport Beach. "It was kind of freaky. I've been surfing down here a long time and I never saw that kind of thing before."

The Velella Velella is oval, typically 1 inch to 3 inches long and 1 inch to 2 inches wide. The bottom part of the creature, often blue or purple, has tentacles that sting prey such as plankton. Protruding from the top is a clear, plastic-looking "sail" that catches the wind and carries them across the sea.

They float aimlessly on the surface hundreds of miles offshore. When spring storms begin to surge, the jellies, often in groups, are thrust randomly onto West Coast beaches by southerly and westerly winds.

The creatures appeared about a month ago, according to Chad Widmer, an aquarist at Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is attempting, for the first time, to cultivate the jellies in order to study their life cycle. Last week Velella Velella began showing up in Santa Cruz and Newport Beach, carpeting the high tide line with their blue bodies. They can be seen on California and Oregon beaches through the beginning of summer, Widmer said.

Although they are relatives of the Portuguese Man-O-War jellyfish, Velella Velella do not pack a powerful punch. Their sting won't pierce the skin, though Widmer does not advise placing them on sensitive skin, such as the mouth.

Newport Beach lifeguard Capt. Eric Bauer said he received 15 to 20 phone calls about the creatures, mostly from beachcombers.

"It was mostly curiosity," said Bauer. "People were picking them up, taking them home to show their kids."

Individuals can collect them for their home aquariums, but the fragile jellies probably will not last very long.

"The tumbling action of the waves is hard on them," said Widmer. "They're pretty much going to die when they wash up on shore."

Although the creatures pose no real threat to humans, the smell as they decompose on the beach can become overwhelming, Widmer said.

"It's wretched; they can smell really, really bad," said Widmer, "like rotting seaweed."

After a couple of days in the sun, the By-the-Wind Sailors on the Newport Beach shore began to disintegrate or were washed back out to sea. All that remains now is the round, cellophane-like sails that brought them there. But the creatures may soon return.

The National Weather Service has forecast higher-than-normal westerly winds off the coast this weekend, from San Francisco to San Diego. The 20-mph winds and 2-to-5-foot wind waves could deposit more Velella Velella on the shores.

Surfer Nick Skawinski, 21, of Newport Beach said he has seen the Velella Velella floating by him in the water and tries to stay out of their way.

"But I've never been stung by them -- they're harmless," he said.

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