Kiskadee: How to Love a Jellyfish

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By Mandy-Suzanne Wong

Welcome to Kiskadee, a yellow-breasted, black-masked, ruffling and squawking celebration of nonhuman vitalities. In this column, you’ll find true stories of nonhuman beings living extraordinary lives, defying human comprehension, and inspiring masterpieces.

Only a jellyfish would know. Only a jellyfish who wanted to be loved would know what they wanted from love, if anything. 

What they wanted wouldn’t be more jellyfishes; jellyfishes don’t need love in order to make baby jellyfishes, they don’t need to touch or press and pierce each other. Jellyfishes do not need intimacy. In our species we often associate love with reproduction; it’s as if love must be parental or bring about the physical act of becoming a parent. Jellyfishes neither require nor indulge in any such act. And so loving a jellyfish, even as a jellyfish, would mean rethinking what most people think that love is for.

The jellyfish emulates the transparency and density of ocean water, matches its body to the water, so that the water is almost itself: a jellyfish is 95% water. If love is the perfect match, then a jellyfish needs no one but the ocean, and yet the jellyfish is so much the ocean that even in love, if this is love, it is alone.

But some jellyfishes are also never alone. In the open ocean, where there are no reefs, no walls, where blue is all there is and there is nothing to cling to, a single jellyfish might be an ecosystem; a sanctuary for baby lobsters lacking fins, a burrow and a nest for tiny amphipods, a living veil of tentacles, a self-defending refuge for little fishes. Interspecies love: jellyfishes’ ideas of who and what are “home” and “family” are as fluid as the jellyfishes are themselves.

Jellyfishes do not seek themselves in other beings. Our species, we tend to seek our own reflections even in stories of strangers: even in the story of the long-dead princess who kissed a frog to turn him into a human so that she could love him, as it were, “properly.” We seek reflections of ourselves in the princess, we believe democracy’s children deserve to see themselves in this heiress of monarchy; just as her story seeks anthropocentric homogeneity in amphibious biodiversity. A jellyfish doesn’t try to make another jellyfish out of the baby yellowtail scad living in its tentacles; their need and desire are mutual, a desire for life as swimming. And so they go on together through their huge and dangerous blue world: a two-eyed vertebrate with blood and a beating heart—and a jellyfish, a being with nothing resembling what we or a baby mackerel would call a brain, a heart, a system of veins, with perhaps dozens of microscopic eyes, some watching the surface, some surveilling depths below—living, working, traveling together not because they are alike, not despite their not being alike, but precisely because they are not at all alike

Lessons in loving from nonhuman symbiosis.

Don’t ask a scientist how to love a jellyfish. Don’t ask a chef. Two memoirs by scientists, an ocean scientist who also cooks and another who won a Nobel Prize: the one discovering unmitigated glee in chopping jellyfishes into little pieces despite her claim not to enjoy cutting meat; the other believing himself ordained by God to kill 3000 jellyfishes per day each summer for years on end. In jellyfish research, says jellyfish researcher Monty Graham, “What’s of concern to most people is not actually jellyfish. What’s of most concern is how jellyfish affect people”; and the emphasis in this research is not particular jellyfish individuals but how a certain global phenomenon, made up of all the jellyfishes in the world, harms or helps human interests, commercial interests most of all. 

Humans vilify entire jellyfish nations for “taking over the seas,” daring not to perish but to thrive when huge ships suck them up accidentally and carry them to places far from their native waters; for panicking when they and everyone around them are tangled up and piled on top of each other in some gigantic fishing net, the jellyfishes’ stinging cells poisoning every fish in the haul; for being sucked into the giant underwater engines meant to cool down power plants, sometimes shutting them down altogether; for defending themselves with stinging cells when humans invade their ocean homes . . . 

It isn’t jellyfishes who build power plants and megaships, setting giant nets to kill ocean denizens en masse. It isn’t jellyfishes whose population outgrows and overruns the entire Earth and drives its own prey to extinction, fouling the waters and poisoning the skies so that the air overheats and acidifies the oceans. Certain jellyfishes do thrive in polluted, deoxygenated waters: Nemopilema nomurai, for instance, Echizen kurage, Nomura’s jellyfish or the giant jellyfish, can grow to 500 lbs with bells of up to 6 feet in diameter. Echizen’s recent population blooms have overwhelmed Japanese fisheries, and why? Global warming, industrial pollution, the proliferation of human-made structures in the oceans, and humans’ overfishing of Echizen kurage’s predators encourage the giant jellyfish to reproduce.

All of these conditions “are attributable to human activities,” says researcher Shin-ichi Uye. “In other words, as human activities flourish, jellyfish are gradually wielding their innate power and threatening human populations. In this regard, I see the jellyfish as a ‘messenger from the sea’ that has come to inform humans of their arrogance.” We must listen, says Uye. He says, “My goal is to listen to the voices of aggregated jellyfish and convey their messages to us human beings.”

Do they revenge themselves on us? Do crowding, stinging jellyfishes avenge the wounded seas? It’s hard to love a mob, love a crowd of giants whose invisible eyes convey nothing but indifference to you. But if humans had dared to love them for themselves as individuals; if we had dared to think anything of them beyond “sheets of pasta . . . scoops of antioxidants and protein”; if humans had cared a whit for how they live and why they live (jellyfishes live for themselves, not for us or for “the food chain”); and if we had considered, as you would for any loved one, the conditions in which they live and what we might do to make those conditions worse or better—would we now have at the end of the pier an angry mob? Nobody needs to cut anybody into pieces or imprison them in labs in order to know that to conquer and destroy their homes is to betray them and incur their wrath. 

Lessons in loving from jellyfishes.

How to love a jellyfish? How to be yourself and love a thing that has no heartbeat and too many arms, an alien that perhaps you have never even seen in person, a specter that stings and fires deadly weapons? Even before the coronavirus epidemic, humans cultivated the propensity to despise everyone outside their inner circle as potential carriers of poison. Humans especially don’t like it when those who are different from us are better than we are at things on which we pride ourselves, when they show us our limitations.

Jellyfishes are better at being independent. Jellyfishes are better at not polluting their environment: they don’t even leave corpses—they simply melt into the water. Certain jellyfishes can do what many a human would give their souls to do: they physically revert to an earlier stage of their development, the free-swimming animals transforming into inert polyps. They become children again.

Loving jellyfishes by admiring their abilities. Marveling at them without using them, as you yourself would wish to be admired but not used. Marvel at its body, its flowing, glowing beauty, each jellyfish by itself, like the National Geographic photographer, David Liittschwager, who often photographs jellyfishes one by one. He only photographs them against all-white or all-black backgrounds “because it allows the observer to regard the animal as an individual.” Yet he often photographs them as prisoners inside Kreisel tanks, bereft of the ocean which for a jellyfish is nearly all of itself. Scientists learned about jellyfishes’ abilities by dragging them out of the water, locking them up or dissecting them, or at best invading their homes to spy on them. How to love a jellyfish without invading or imprisoning.

To love someone when your only glimpse of them was off the edge of a marina, where all you could see was sunlight glistening off the tops of tiny and transparent ephyrae. Love someone if you’ve never seen them in your life, only read about them or heard the rumor that somewhere out there they exist. Cherish someone who, without a word, reveals to you that you’ve done wrong. Is it possible, such feeling, such exposure?

It all depends on you. What you think love is for.

Bermudian author Mandy-Suzanne Wong’s award-winning books include the fiction chapbook Awabi (Digging, 2019); the nonfiction chapbook Artificial Wilderness (Selcouth, 2020); the essay collection Listen, we all bleed (New Rivers, 2021); and the internationally acclaimed novel Drafts of a Suicide Note (Regal House, 2019), which was a top finalist for American Book Fest’s Best Book Award for Fiction, an Eyelands Book Award finalist, a Permafrost Book Prize finalist, a Conium Review Book Prize semifinalist, and a PEN Open Book Award nominee. She is also the author of the collection Animals Across Discipline, Time and Space (McMaster Museum of Art, 2020). She holds a PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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