“Do it again,” the kids yell. They crowd around as my husband leans over the side of the dock and traces his hand through the water. Flashes of green spark in the water. We all bend toward the water and splash our fingers, making trails of color in the dark.
“Bioluminescence,” my husband says and the kids say cool and chatter excitedly.
It is a moonless and clear fall night. Still. The inky black surface of water is smooth. Behind us madrone, old growth cedar, and hemlock trees rise up from the cliffy hillside. Above, stars crowd the sky. Across the bay, house lights glow.
We are nine middle school kids and four adults, part of a newly formed outdoor club from the small town I live in. It is our very first weekend trip away and we spend it at a state park on a bay in northern Puget Sound. We go to the dock because it is a beautiful clear night and because the running around in the dark is nearly out of control, which is fun, until someone has a close call with a tree. We round the kids up and say a walk to the dock and the beach will be fun.
“It’s like magic,” one of the kids says.
“Or stars,” my husband offers. “It’s like stars in the ocean.” He takes a scoop of water in his hands and holds them up toward the kids. “You can hold whole constellations in your hands.”
Bioluminescence is common in Puget Sound and yet in my thirty years of living here it is my first time to see it. I am as thrilled as the kids. The phenomenon is caused by hundreds of single cell plankton called dinoflagellates that appear in late summer and early fall. Though common in Puget Sound, their comings and goings are mysterious and unpredictable and seeing them is often simply nothing more than dumb luck. But the moonless night works in our favor. They prefer dark after all.
Then someone turns their headlamp on and spots a jellyfish drifting by, slow and dreamy like, then a whole flotilla. More headlamps come on and the kids shine lights on the jellyfish, follow them with their lights as they float by and out of sight. When the jellyfish are gone they turn their attention to the mussels and barnacles covering the wooden pilings of the pier and the crabs that run back and forth over the crusted growth, biggish crabs, bluish and long legged. The kids crowd round to watch the crabs fight or scurry off into the dark. The water is so clear and still it is hard to tell where shore begins and the water ends. We see mottled brown stones made round by the waves and patches of sand in between and then more jelly fish, dozens floating near the water’s surface. The kids point at them excitedly and someone says they are so beautiful and they are – fluid and graceful – like a watery ballet of languid dancers.
It doesn’t seem quite right. All these jellyfish. I wonder at the abundance. It hangs on the tip of my tongue. I’ve seen it before, read about it. I want to say something but don’t. I want the kids to be awed and dazzled and remember years from now the night on the beach when the water glowed like stars. I want them to give their hearts to this place, to Puget Sound, the Pacific Ocean, the woods and forested hillsides behind and beyond, the whole big wild world that surrounds them, before I break any bad news.
Out on the beach the kids find the tidal edge. They lift up rocks and watch small crabs run out and they try to catch them. Gentle, we say, be gentle. Someone finds a small Dungeness crab and then shrimp, a bunch of shrimp, which they try to catch too, but the shrimp are fast and slippery and shoot through their fingers. Someone shouts and when I look, I see their footprints light up in the sand. Bioluminescence left behind by the receding tide. They turn off their headlamps and jump and dance and squeal in surprised delight.
I think of camping with friends on Puget Sound a summer not so long ago and how the kids rushed out to jump in but stopped short – so foul was the water. The blob, I read later. The blob had invaded Puget Sound. The blob a massive band of unusually warm water that first showed up late summer, nearly three year ago, in the Pacific Ocean, stretching from Alaska to Mexico. In 2014 the blob made its way into Puget Sound, encouraging three toxic algae blooms. Unprecedented is the word I read most often in reference to the blob and the algae blooms. Unprecedented is the persistence of the blob, its return, its warmth and size. And the algae blooms, they’re not uncommon per se, what is uncommon is three toxic blooms all at once. We’re cautioned though from thinking the events are related or other than part of a natural cycle. We’re cautioned from thinking this is human caused or part of that whole global warming phenomenon.
My son once wanted, more than anything, to be a fish. He was five, maybe six. I don’t know why I tell you this. I don’t know that it’s relevant in any way except that it makes me both sad and pleased, his seemingly inherent and abundant love for water, for oceans and lakes and rivers and fish and whales and sharks, rays and shellfish. Jellyfish. He knows so many types of water creatures and where they live and if they are deadly or not, especially the jellyfish. There are over 1,000 species worldwide and over 60 in Puget sound. Maybe its the sting of love I fear. The inevitable pain of loss.
It was early summer, not so long ago, that my son was first bit by a jellyfish. We were wading, or I was. My son was swimming as he always does, most often the first in water, and the last out with not much matter given to the weather or water temperature. I didn’t believe it at first, the bite. He screamed as he ran up the stairs that went up the steep bluff and back to our car. Only there did I see the red welt and the swelling and believe it to really be a jellyfish sting.
It is true there is a profound abundance of jellyfish in Puget Sound and that this profusion is a sign of troubled waters – a stressed environment. I read this over and over. This profusion has been noticed by many, not just scientists, but journalist and business folks, beachcombers and swimmers and boaters and fishermen. Though many species of jellyfish are native to the sound and though their naturally occurring blooms have been documented for decades, the numbers of jellyfish and frequency of blooms is indicative of something deeply disturbing. Jellies alter the marine food web in profound, and possibly lasting ways, competing as they do with all marine creatures that depend on plankton. Prime fish species like salmon, and seabirds and other marine mammals. Ourselves. Dependent as we are on food from the ocean. We and most other creatures gain little from consuming jellyfish. Ultimately, it will affect all of us, in a way far worse than closed beaches, clogged intakes and jellyfish stings.
Jellyfish population swings are occurring with greater frequency and number, in most every ocean and sea worldwide. Nuclear power plant closures due to jellyfish clogged intake filters are a recurring event in Japan, Sweden, USA, Israel, Australia, and Spain. Numerous beaches along the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts have closed due to jelly fish blooms as have beaches in Thailand, Spain, Bermuda. Mostly I read more studies are needed. Events are not necessarily connected: the warming waters, over-fishing, development, and pollution.
My son has tempered his desire to be a fish. He tends now toward marine biology. Sharks, he says. He would like to study sharks. We talk about how vast the ocean is, how much wilderness there is. I say the ocean would be almost like exploring space, almost as unknown and so much waiting to be discovered. I tell him that over ninety per cent of the ocean remains unexplored and what has been explored is not well understood. Things like bioluminescence are still mostly a mystery. New species are being discovered every year. Recently over 100 new species were discovered in just one area off the Philippine coastline, from the twilight zone, as it’s called, the place where sunlight barely reaches. And in the deep, dark depths, new species of worms, starfish, crab, and most recently the astonishing ghost octopod.
Some scientists say we should get used to it. We need to accept and get over the jelly blooms. Deal with it. The blooms happen and will continue to happen in much the same way rats and cockroach populations boom and bust and follow human civilization and development. Others say maybe the enormous unprecedented worldwide blooms of jellyfish are a wake-up call. Maybe humans should stop destroying ecosystems – marine or otherwise. We don’t know what we’re destroying, the half of what is out there.
I watch the kids. I watch them laugh and bump against each other, watch them jostle to see and hold and know what is in the circle of light of their headlamps. I hesitate to say anything because I hate to ruin the fun. I hesitate too because I dread the question of how it got this way. And what I have done and what will we do? It’s not fair, they’ll say. Maybe not today or tomorrow but someday. Someday when they understand. When they think back on it. When they grow up and become, they’ll ask why. Why us? Why our children and grandchildren? Why this burden? It’s not our fault, they’ll say. And its not. Nor is it my fault or my parents or their parents. But it is our burden – us in the long chain of being – the ones to watch the jellyfish float by like so many of our ancestors’ follies made visible. The sins of our fathers and all that. It’s not fair. Not fair for any of us. All of us. The kids, the salmon, the jellyfish, the crabs, and worms. All the undiscovered species carrying on in darkness, unaware of what we humans do. Not fair. But here we are.