Country diary: moon jellyfish in the swim
Shieldaig, Wester Ross, Highlands: Thousands lie dead in the sea, each one a clear, gelatinous disc inset with four perfect, violet rings in tight formation
Picking my way barefoot around the rocky headland, I notice the sea below is thick and soupy with a strange debris. Soft pastilles drift in the surf, swirling – slow, chaotic, kaleidoscopic – with each thrust of the waves. Moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita). Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe, each one a clear, gelatinous disc inset with four perfect, violet rings in tight formation like the face of a dice. They are dead.
It’s the season for it. In hot weather, jellyfish amass – “bloom” – in the warming shallows to feast on plankton; these feeble swimmers are then helpless to resist the tides and currents, and find themselves stranded upon the beach or dashed against the rocks.
Moon jellyfish are harmless but I still feel a thrill of fear as I slip my hands into the water and cup them beneath one saucer-shaped form and lift it out. It is surprisingly firm to the touch, though floppy – almost fluid – and misted like frosted glass. Its edges are puckered, drawn together as though to create the mouth of a drawstring bag. I flip it over, and the bag’s contents are revealed: translucent purple tongues loll from the centre, frilled and ruffled at their edges.
I stretch my mind: How does it feel to be a jellyfish? No ears, no eyes, no brain, no heart. A hidden orifice between these shrimpy tentacles serves as both mouth and anus. The circular “moons” of its topside are not eyes but sexual organs. It is limp, though not so far gone as the cup-sized specimens that float by with their bodies inverted. Just in case, I throw it out to sea.
Further round, in a pebbled cove, we find them drawn in a blanket across the strand, blurring indistinctly into the ground and one another. Every few metres this soft-form landscape is interrupted by the bodies of their cousins: lion’s mane jellyfish, which are different, larger, more dangerous. They lie as splattered paint on the stones, maroon and coral and mauve, tentacles trailing out behind them.
We’re grounded too: no swimming today. Though I can’t say I’m sorry to have seen them.