Jellyfish Are Weird: Monterey Bay Aquarium

elegant tentacle

“There is a thin semantic line separating weird and beautiful, and that line is covered in jellyfish.”

– Welcome to NightVale

We went to the Monterey Bay Aquarium a few weekends ago for their Special Jellyfish Tour. Special Jellyfish Tours are the sort of thing that I do when I live within near geographical proximity to my parents. I do not know what this says about my family, exactly.

I’ve always liked jellyfish, in a relatively abstract way. I remember seeing a spectacular comb jellyfish (Ctenophora) pulsing gentle away behind the blue back-light of the Tennessee Aquarium and being incredulous, for a moment, that such a thing could exist in this world and not in cartoons. I thought about the possibility of building a tank for one in my room.

Other Jellyfish Facts percolated into me, largely through pressing my nose to aquarium glass in one place or another: upside down jellyfish that pulse aberrantly on the bottom of their tanks, lazy moon jellyfish percolating through the corners of their circular tanks, and — weirdest of all — the jellyfish reproduction method of stacking a whole bunch of jellyfish up onto a stalk (budding polyp) and than separating at the right time. I had a glow in the dark jellyfish toy that I treated with particular affection, especially in the bathtub where it bobbed realistically. There was even, as I recall, a jellyfish Beanie Baby. Named “Goochy.” 

living shag carpet

The parts of the US I frequented were rather low on jellyfish when I was a kid, and I first encountered the Real Thing in the flesh at a harbor in Perth, on the Swan River. I looked down idly at the black water surrounding the ship slips and discovered a veritable sea of pulsing moon jellyfish of all different sizes, dotting the water like gelatinous, alien stars. It was both horrifying and gorgeous. The Australians paid no attention.

Later, I ran on the beach and saw a few dozen jellyfish washed up upon the shore, here and there. I bent over and poked one with my finger – delicately at first, than more harshly. The jellyfish had surprising substance: it did not give like one might expect a liquid, but instead felt rather more like one of those gel stress balls everyone had on their desk back in 1995.

tank jellyfish

The tentacles were not in evidence. It was off-putting — to imagine jellyfish not as ethereal, amorphous things but as more solid, more substantial than I had previously given them credit for.

I took up scuba diving this year and have been lucky enough to not have any real-run ins, although I’m a big advocate of wearing full wetsuits just to be sure. I came up from a dive once noticing a red, two inch long and perfectly straight slash across my arm, which stung a little. Perhaps a jellyfish. They are hard to see underwater.

jellyfish float

They are easy to see at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is one of the founders of world jellyfish husbandry and is justly proud of the fact. Jellyfish may look like rather simple creatures with decidedly limited enrichment needs, but are in fact obnoxiously difficult to keep in captivity. They are kept in circular tanks (called  kreisels) because they have a perverse tendency to get caught in the corners and break themselves into pieces. Monterey Bay Aquarium experts figured out that they could use water to create a circular current, keeping the jellyfish circumnavigating about throughout their (brief) lives.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium (and other noble experts) have got the art pinned down so exactly that jellyfish are now en route to becoming a fad pet. You can even have them mailed direct to your home, plus shipping.

Over the course of the Special Jellyfish Tour, we were shepherded up elevators, down elevators, and through and around the back of various jellyfish tanks by an extremely excited woman in her sixties in a jaunty red coat with pens stuck to it, who had decided to devote her retirement to telling people about jellyfish in lieu of reading the bridge column.

“I can’t wait to tell you about this one!” she’d say, often, staring lovingly into a tank filled with pulsing, off-yellow aliens. She spoke of them in a protective fashion, as if they were a pack of pet Chihuahuas, or perhaps slightly mischievous grandchildren.

pink jelly

We then got to stroke a moon jellyfish, which the tour guide caught gently in her hand. They do not sting particularly, and can be safely touched. The moon jellyfish felt exactly like the late jellyfish I had encountered on the beach: more solid than anticipated.

She released the jellyfish, and it bobbed in a confused fashion in the tank for a minute — as confused as it is possible for an essentially brainless creature composed of animate jelly to be. Then it righted itself and began its slow circumnavigation of Jellyfish Prison again.

“Don’t touch your eyes,” the tour guide said. We washed our hands.

monterey is terrible
The Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Regardless of my personal fondness for jellyfish, science tells me they are a terrible menace and I should fear them,  or at least feel a reasonable sort of existential dread.

“Stung!: On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean” by Lisa-ann Gershwin proved a prescient and decidedly distressing read, wherein Gershwin describes in great but readable detail how our seas will eventually become choked with a great horror of pulsating, minimally-brained floating protein.

We shall have to grow used to eating jellyfish, living with jellyfish, perhaps fashioning clothing out of jellyfish. Scuba diving will become a much more pedestrian endeavor, where we’ll pay considerable sums to bob around amidst a sea of pulsating freaks — the entire world transformed into a rendering of Palau’s “Jellyfish Lake.” 

Worse, we’ve brought this living Lava Lamp of a dystopian nightmare upon ourselves, with deep-sea trawling, pollution, and increasingly warm waters perfectly suited for our impending Cnidarian overlords. The Japanese are trying to convince everyone else that jellyfish taste good. They are the first vanguards.

Technology is trying to address the problem, including a perhaps ill-fated Korean jellyfish shredding robot — you can view a video of it in action swiftly liquefying moon jellyfish, which a blogger helpfully noted is “pretty graphic.”

You could probably write  a thesis as to why the sight of a jellyfish being shredded evokes the mild discomfort in my psyche (and I suspect that of others) as that felt when watching a beautiful object destroyed — they are walking that “thin semantic line.”

Consider the jellyfish, then: they are both delicate and capable of ruining us entirely. They are the subjects of plush toys, art, and slightly-arms-length human fascination. We will cede the planet to them, soon enough.

gaze into jellyfish

The disturbing realities of salmon

salmon dramatic
Salmon thinking that this water output valve is a waterfall they must jump. Oh salmon.

One of the great attractions of the Sacramento area in the Autumn is the salmon run. Irrespective of what that says about Sacramento, it’s an interesting thing to see, in no small part because the life of a salmon has been the inspiration for all manner of disturbing analogies across the annals of literature.

The Nimbus Fish Hatchery in Gold River, on the way out of Sacramento to the foothills, is the favored location for salmon run viewing in the area. That’s where these photos are from. The area was crawling with small confused children alternately repulsed and fascinated by the salmon on a recent Sunday, which is how all early life nature encounters should be.

The salmon life cycle resembles something out of Lovecraft’s more squicky novels. Born in rivers, salmon fend for themselves in fresh water streams until they are large enough to migrate all the way to the ocean. There, they grow into ocean-going adults if they manage to fend off the hordes of predatory animals — including human beings — that think they taste delicious with dill sauce.

informative fish head display
Giant salmon heads. Nothing to see here.

Once they have reached full adulthood, the siren call of the river beckons them back to their native home. This is an epic journey involving swimming upstream, battling powerful waters, and leaping in a floppy fashion up aquatic inclines, or fish ladders if they’re lucky. Some get eaten by grizzly bears. Some get eaten by anglers. Some get eaten by me, personally, after I have removed the shrink wrap.

No one  is entirely sure exactly how a fish not renowned for its towering, penetrating intellect manages to return to its birthplace well-nigh unerringly, but theories ranging from the salmon’s keen sense of smell to some stuff I don’t understand and will note even vaguely pretend to about geomagnetic and chemical cues have been bandied about. Irregardless. They manage it. They battle the waters and they manage it.

There is also some selection bias afoot here. What of the salmon who get lost and screw it up? What about Idiot Bob the Salmon? Does Bob the Salmon suddenly find himself flailing about in an estuary in Tahiti, instead of the mighty and temperate American River from which he came, and from which he should rightly return? These are important considerations.

seagulls waiting
Seagulls waiting near the fish ladder.

Once the Pacific salmon makes it home, the salmon do not nostalgically enjoy their birthplace. Their skin flakes off in great sheets and they grow splotchy and ragged looking. They stop caring about eating. They are driven merely by life’s more X-rated motivation: sex. Sex proceeded by fighting, because furiously battling to mate is a big part of being a salmon.

There’s a lot of biting. Just look at this nastiness. Ignore the soundtrack, for your own benefit:

 Once they manage to spawn, the salmon then promptly die and float belly-up in the water, emitting a stink that draws elated mid-sized wildlife from miles around and displeases local homeowners.

There’s a beautiful analogy in there somewhere, I guess.

salmon fish gate

Since the salmon are going to die anyway, the hatchery collects the fish by means of a very long fish ladder, “bunches” them, sedates them, then kills them and mixes the eggs with the sperm.  The meat is donated to local charities. The eggs are then hatched, and the young fish are raised in large concrete holding tanks, which are walled off to prevent birds from getting into them.

They’re not walled off to prevent children from getting into them, however, as my cousin learned the hard way when she teetered too close to the edge at a fish hatchery in Tennessee back in the 1990s. We still look back fondly on that.

Steelhead trout are caught in the same way but are not killed, as they evolved in a reasonable fashion and don’t actually die the first time they have sex. Good going, steelhead trout.

I know I’m supposed to be impressed by the power of nature and the determination of even a fish to accomplish its life goals against overwhelming odds, but mostly, any deep contemplation of the life cycle of salmon makes everything seem futile and terribly small, and then I need to go lie down with a beverage.

fall american river

Facebooks Ads Are Sexist, or Advertising Isn’t As Scary as You Think

surveillance cameras

Recently, I installed a software that blocks Facebook on my primary browser, thinking it’d help keep me from spending the majority of my waking hours social networking, instead of less rewarding things like eating, sleeping, or working. I only allowed myself to use Facebook on my Inferior Other Browser: and was reintroduced to the world of Facebook ads, which I’d been blocking for years.

Determined to maximize how annoying I found Facebook, I left them on — and soon realized just how weirdly inaccurate they were for my interests. I’ve never expressed any enthusiasm for babies, weddings, weight-loss schemes or dating websites on my Facebook wall, my friends rarely talk about such matters, and I certainly haven’t liked any groups associated with them. So why was I getting ads for baby clothes, pregnancy tests, and pictures of grinning gay couples “just looking to adopt” on a disturbingly regular basis?

I went out and “liked” all the Childfree groups I could possibly find, with charming names like

I also waged a two month war of ad-hiding against baby, wedding, and weight-loss ads, marking them as “offensive” or “not interesting.” Nothing seemed to change – calling into question why Facebook bothers with the questionnaire in the first place.

Fed up, I changed my Facebook gender. To male. But kept my sexual orientation. Suddenly, my ads became considerably more accurate. Bland and focused on financial planning and train-sets, sure. But stuff I found considerably more aligned with my actual interests than weight loss scams and low-cost pregnancy tests.

Just to entertain myself, I decided to become a straight male on Facebook with predictable results: an array of ads asking me if I’d like to meet Korean-American hot singles, date-planning schemes, and ads for mobile train sets. As well as a Meet Muslim Women website.

Screen Shot 2013-11-10 at 12.54.04 AM

Curiously enough, when I switched myself over to a gay female, I continued to get the same advertisements as I did when I was a heterosexual female. This includes an advertisement, illustrated above, that I will define as Sparkly George Clooney Will Leave Your Whore Ass. Sometimes I even got it twice. The only absence? All the baby ads. Well, that’s a data point. About barren lesbians who want to date George Clooney.

A friend of mine who knows about Facebook advertising suspects that liking the child-free groups convinced the algorithmic powers that be that I’m interested in kids – subjects like something with the word “child” in it, suspect must thus be interested in children. I’m not sure this is the whole story, though. I was getting hit with dozens of baby-related Facebook ads before I went out and liked the child-free groups, which indicates I may have just made my problem worse.

It’s also possible that my feverish Internet usage — it’s both my job and my addiction — makes me a particularly tough nut to both track and crack for social media advertisers. I’m also the host of a rather eclectic set of interests, and I log on from a number of different countries. These factors probably make some people a lot harder to pinpoint than others. But shouldn’t the algorithm at least not be bombarding me with ads for things I’ve directly expressed my disinterest in?

Many people now believe that Internet companies have already just about perfected creepy advertising targeting technology. In the wake of the NSA, many ask, perhaps rightly: What don’t they know about us?

But Facebook’s total inability to advertise accurately to myself and some of the people I know indicates that the situation, at least right now, is not quite as dystopian-horrifying as we may think.

Advertisers themselves will admit their data isn’t as god-like as we fear. An ad exec told Digiday last year that intender cookies get the gender of a particular user on a data exchange wrong 30 to 35 percent of the time — and that’s a pretty big detail.

This also raises some interesting questions about how Facebook is marketing its intelligent advertising. Do people who buy Facebook advertising assume it’s more accurate than it actually is?

It’s just about impossible to deny that Facebook is busily attempting to construct a terrifying Orwellian advertising algorithm that will know your deepest desires by scanning your neurons, but our current system apparently is not even particularly good at determining your gender. Or your sexual orientation. Or the fact that you really, really don’t care about daycare.