Coast Tip: Smelly Jellyfish

I don’t know how the heck it happened, but the time is here: tourist season on the Oregon Coast has begun in full force. For year-round coast dwellers, it is a frenzied time that stirs up what could be called anti-Valley angst, as once empty beaches suddenly have dozens of individuals on them at any one time (thank lordy this isn’t California). But the beaches aren’t just filled with additional humans at this time of year – Velella velella join the mix, adding a gelatinous, sometimes stinky component to a coastie’s routine sandy stroll.  

Velella velella are palm-sized or smaller, indigo-colored jellyfish, famous for their triangular dorsal sails, which give them their common name; by-the-wind-sailor. These sails are situated diagonally across the back to aid in dispersal on the sea surface, but also have the less fortunate design feature of catching strong early summer winds that blow velella to shore. Once on land, they reach the end of their life cycle and decompose over the following weeks, providing a food source to invertebrates that live in the sand, and a slightly odorous atmosphere for the rest of us. While velella appear on Oregon beaches every year, mass strandings occur less regularly, with the last major one being in the spring of 2015 – the same year the warm water “blob” formed in the Pacific Ocean.

When not yet sand bound, one can spot velellas in the ocean’s shallows in their more preferred position – upright on the surface of the water. Underneath their sail, their oval-shaped body contains short tentacles that help them sting and catch small prey like plankton (but fortunately are not known to harm wading hominids).

Perhaps most interesting of all is the reproductive life cycle of the velella. As members of the taxonomic class Hydrozoa, the vellala we see most often are in the polyp stage of their life. In the ocean, polyps reproduce asexually, budding off medusa into the water. The medusa life stage is one in which the velella behaves much more like the jellyfish most are familiar with, swimming and eating within the water column. Medusae then sexually reproduce to create the larval stage planula, which eventually “land” on their substrate on the sea surface to become new polyps.  

For an easy go at velella viewing, head to the coast sooner rather than later, as the freshly washed ashore sailors are much more pleasant than those that dry out. Newport’s Nye Beach is a classic stop, conducive to sighting new masses of human and jelly forms alike.

By Ari Blatt