Love them, loathe them, or carefully step over them on the beach, jellyfish are an iconic animal of our time–you just may not know it yet. These slimy overlooked, animals own a slew of superlatives: longest animal (exceeding the stretch of a blue whale); most toxic venom (can kill you in three minutes); oldest animal (over 600 million years); and first to lift off the seafloor and swim. They are also undeniably beguiling, holding a deep silence within us as we gaze at their primitive undulations.
With a life cycle more plant-like than animal-like, jellyfish form gigantic blooms that can overwhelm ecosystems and economies. The question is, are they doing it more often nowadays? In Spineless, I follow an international group of twenty scientists working to determine whether jellyfish populations are really on the rise around the world–and if so, if that increase is caused by us.
My jellyfish journey takes me to the East Coast where I meet scientists building robotic jellyfish and on the West Coast where I meet scientists studying how jellies fit into ecosystems. At Monterey Bay Aquarium, I see baby jellyfish pop to life. I meet a pet jellyfish aquarium manufacturer who raised over $100,000 on Kickstarter and an artist in Oregon who builds 10-foot-tall jellyfish from ocean debris. At home in Austin, I try my hand at raising pet jellyfish and at cooking jellyfish salad. In Japan, I chase the Godzilla of jellyfish, echizen kurage, a beast that reaches the size of a refrigerator and has been invading Japan’s seas with increasing frequency.
But Spineless is not just about jellyfish. It’s also about me. It’s about the ways that I had to confront my own spinelessness in order to write this book. Because when you get the idea to write a book about jellyfish, it even sounds a little silly to yourself. I learned to shed my giggle, and along the way, to understand that the story of jellyfish is our collective story, a story about the planet we share.