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Sunday, September 25, 2016

My Patronus is a Jellyfish... Weird Musings on My Peculiar Penchant for Cnidarians

To paraphrase Rubeus Hagrid, "Seriously misunderstood creatures jellyfish are." 

I've been quite partial to jellyfish ever since my first close encounter with Cassiopeia xamachana (I've blogged about them HERE on my now mostly defunct Waterblogged site). 

My infatuation with these graceful, mesmerizing invertebrates started when I saw what looked like a cross between a flower and an anemone on the sandy bottom of Brewer's Bay in St. Thomas. I'd recently transferred to the College of the Virgin Islands and was snorkeling around the school's dock. The flower was beautiful with its green-gold petals undulating with the slight surge. I had to get a closer look! (Casseopia photo courtesy of Shyzaboy's Flickr photostream.)

As I was about to touch a petal, a hand grabbed my wrist. My ecology professor was snorkeling nearby and saw what I was about to do. He pulled me to the surface and said, "That's not a plant, it's a jellyfish."

Now I was even more fascinated so found out everything I could about Cassiopea xamachana, the "upside-down jellyfish." Three years later, I did my senior research project and independent study on Cassiopea, and have never lost my fascination with jellies. 

In the 30 years since the onset of my love affair with jellies, I've only become more passionate about them. Could it be because I can so closely identify with so many of the their "seriously misunderstood" traits? I think that might have something to do with it.

So what are some of the misunderstood traits?

The first thing that comes to mind about jellies: prickly, ouchy, nasty stingers. But those stingers are there to make sure nothing gets close enough to hurt what lies beneath. Inside is just a lot of soft gooey-ness that gets hurt really, really easily. 

That defense mechanism is just that--defensive--to protect the far-too-soft parts. Jellyfish don't hunt, they don't go on the attack. The harpoon-like nematocysts--the stinging part--are released in response to stimulus, mechanical or chemical. The barb or needle at the end releases venom that causes the pain and then incapacitates any food that might have made the mistake of swimming too close. Again, they don't actively chase down prey to sting, it just happens when something bumps them...rubs them the wrong way. 

Jellyfish have a simple symmetrical nervous system. Stimulus to any point on the body, sends the nerve impulse out in a fast reaction, with no brain to intervene. They react to a perceived threat (even if not threatening, with all that vulnerability, anything too close could potentially harm the poor jelly). The reaction protects soft gooey parts without first passing through a brain, like a knee-jerk when the doctor "threatens" you with a hammer.

Please don't judge the jellies on that first reaction. Beneath that, the soft gooey parts are worth the effort to get to know. And the more you know about the jellyfish, the easier it is to safely handle them.

One of the great traits jellyfish have is how well they play with and protect their friends. Yes, despite that initial lashing out, jellyfish have managed to form a few very close symbiotic relationships. They keep those symbionts, their partners and friends, safe from attack, letting some live among their tentacles, where they share scraps from meals with them. Others live right inside the jellyfish's body. The jelly gives them a safe home, provides nutrients, and will even transport it's friends, moving toward sunlight so the zooxanthellae living in their tissue can photosynthesize. Jellyfish are true and loyal friends for the few organisms who get past the stinging barbs.

For those reasons and more, I am empathetic. I can so very closely relate to the jellyfish and feel for them, for the bad rap they get.

My jelly-fettish isn't a passing fancy. I figured if the obsession hasn't faded after 30-years, it's probably a firmly established part of me. As a matter of fact, I wanted to honor that part of me, so had a jellyfish tattooed on my arm in white three years ago.

My "stealth jelly" tattooed in white.

I liked it so much, I wanted to add just a hint of color, and a second, smaller jellyfish. Alas, I didn't go back to my trusted tattoo artist, Frankie, because I got lazy and didn't want to drive to Savannah. Big mistake. Hint: if you find a tattoo artist who you like and know does good work, it's worth the drive! My beautiful jellyfish ended up looking like a kid had drawn on my arm with a crayon. 

So, I went back to Savannah to have Frankie do as much of a touch up as he could to salvage his work. At the time, he urged me to think about adding more color so he could really fix the image and "make it pop." At the time, I still had a clear memory of the white jelly and loved that "stealth" look of my tattoo, so I said, "no, just make it look not so bad, but keeping it mostly white."

Frankie's fix after my bad ink experience at Iron Lotus Tattoo 

It took another 1 1/2 years for me to decide not only do I love my jellyfish, but I want to really fix them, and let them be seen. So, back to Savannah I went, and after exchanging pictures and ideas with Frankie, decided it was time to submerge my jellies in some water. That way I could have my white stealth jellies with just a hint of color, and make them visible. And here's what I now have. This is the freshly done ink, so brighter than it will be when it's healed. 

jelly tattoo
My stealth jellies have taken the plunge and are now
surrounded by turquoise blue tropical waters.

 As I said a the beginning, my Patronus is a jellyfish. Now, it's always with me so I'll always be protected and safe from the dementors. I feel better already. 

Up next: I'll take a look at my tattoos more closely: the timing and significance of each, and something of what I now think, in retrospect, the deeper significance of getting those I did when I did.


  1. At least now no one will mistake them for steaming coffee cups.

  2. Love the tattoo - Jellyfish are pretty amazing. I saw a huge blue one in the harbour at Tobermory a couple of weeks ago, and I had blue streaks on my legs after encountering a swarm of small ones in the water off Zanzibar. I confidently expected to die, but I'm not holding it against them...

    1. Glad you aren't holding the prickly encounter against them, Anne! Thanks for reading!