“By-the-wind sailors” is their common name, these 2-inch jellies that swarm in massive flotillas, carpeting a beach seemingly overnight in a vast blanket of fragile blue blobs.
“Velella Velella” is their scientific name. “Vela” means “sail,” so it’s literally “little sail, little sail.” Their tiny blue horizontal body is actually a colony, a large collection of mutually dependent organisms. Its three-cornered sail, translucent and vertical, catches the wind and travels the seas; an armada can sail from the Caribbean to the shores of Europe.
We call them a “cosmopolitan” organism because they live all over the world. Our California beaches have welcomed them this month. And so Aquarium visitors often ask about them; “We were at Asilomar Beach and saw millions of these blue blobs – what are they?”
I got that question the other day. After I said “Valella Valella” and told them about the colony and the sails, the curious guest went on to ask me,
“And what are they good for?”
The great Aquarium education staff teaches us volunteers to honor all questioners and impart facts gently. But I sometimes fail. I replied, “What are you good for?” (As I have once or twice said to kids who ask, “But what does it DO?” - “What do you do?”)
Apologizing to the questioner, I said that these jellies travel, they eat, they reproduce (complicatedly, in that colony, some are all female, some all male). I said there is much we don’t know about them, where they come from and go. In other words, they are much like us. What are we all good for? Traveling, eating, reproducing, living, dying.
One more thing about the great word “Vela,” that thin fragile sail. The same Latin word give us “veil” and “reveal.”
Maybe that is what they are good for - to lift the veil and impart a revelation, a re-vela-tion. Their surprise appearances, this cosmopolitan colony, these fragile long distance sailors, let us in on a secret – that the sea is full of surprises, and occasionally the veil is lifted.
(I first posted this in May 2015. They're back! Sail on down to our Blue Theology Mission Station and see the valellas.)