The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

Jellyfish Tide


These days I’m living on the Schoodic Peninsula, in Maine–being a writer means my work is portable. Schoodic is just up the coast from Mount Dessert Island, so today my husband and I decided to take the ferry over to Bar Harbor for the afternoon. We had a great time. On the way over, I spotted some large, red round round thing floating several feet down in the cold, green water going by beside the boat.

“Hey, I think I just saw a lion’s mane!” I said. Lion’s manes are jellyfish, huge, colorful jellyfish, relatively common in Maine, but I’d never seen one before–they’re cold-water animals and don’t come south to Maryland where I live. We have the tiny but venomous sea nettles and the colorless moon jellies that range up and down the coast. Most moon jellies I’ve seen are about six or eight inches across with a short fringe of threadlike tentacles. A really big one could be up to fifteen inches. In water, they are the translucent white of old sea glass. Lion’s manes are partially clear, but flushes at their centers with orange, red, or purple. A big one can be up to eight feet across with tentacles a hundred feet long. The record-holder was a hundred and twenty feet long, making it among the world’s largest animals.

That one I saw was probably three or four feet across and I could not see its tentacles.

Then, just a few minutes later, I spotted another one, smaller and closer to the surface–obviously a big, red jellyfish. And that was odd. It’s not like I’d never looked down into the water in Maine before, and the second lion’s mane I see is just a few hundred feet from the first? Could there be a bloom going on? When jellyfish reproduce quickly and congregate in large numbers it is called a bloom, just as when algae do the same thing. Jellyfish may be large animals, but they are plankton, floating at the mercy of the current, same as algae–the pulsing of their bells moves them around a bit, but they are not strong swimmers and in any case can’t steer.

We arrived in Bar Harbor, went shopping, and had lunch together on an open deck beneath ash and maple trees. Then, with just an hour or so before we needed to catch the ferry, we decided to take part of the Shore Path along the sea. It’s a pleasant walk along the foot of some very elegant private homes and businesses. A cement sea wall divides the land from the rock slopes and cobbles of the inter-tidal zone and its small, quiet waves. We reached the end, turned, and headed back.

And there, among the rocks and sea weed, was another lion’s mane jellyfish.

It was only about twenty inches across. It had been battered already by even the mild surf of the harbor and was clearly dead, its tentacles ripped away and its edges fraying. Each wavelet pushed it in and out of a small crevice in the rock like a miniature cove. My husband walked off, leaving me to investigate the unfortunate animal.

Nearby, there were three more lion’s mane jellies, in similar size and condition.

Two young men spotted the jellies and remarked on them. We spoke and I told them what I knew, that jellyfish populations may be expanding because of climate change, there have certainly been a lot more anecdotal reports in the last two years, but no one really knows because there is no good baseline data. Scientists are asking members of the public who see jellies in Maine to contact them and report it. I knew all this because I wrote a post on it a few weeks ago. I told them how to contact the relevant scientists and make a report. They thanked me and one of the men told me that he’s lived here all his life and he’s only ever seen jellyfish twice in his life–and the other time was last year. Another anecdote, but he agrees the situation seems weird. We wished each other good day and parted.

Just then, my cell phone rang. It was my mother, just “calling to call,” as she sometimes does. We chatted for a minute or so before I thought to tell her that I’d just seen my first lion’s mane jellyfish…and my second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth. She was suitably impressed and I told her I planned to call it in.

“I mean, when you see six jellyfish in the same day,” I explained, walking along the path, “I mean, seven. Wait, let me double-count…yes, there’s seven. Oh! Eight!”


“Nine…ten…this is remarkable.”

“I know, you are are remarking on it.”


“This is spooky.”



But I couldn’t stop, because there were more jellyfish. I’d go a hundred feet and not see one, but then there’d be three in a row. Sometimes there was one every ten feet. Once there were two, each about two feet across, lying on top of each other at the waterline. I used a stick to separate them so I could see better. They were heavy, the thick texture of peeled grapes. Once I saw a small one, perhaps a foot across, up on dry rock well above the water line. The tide was rising, so I’m sure somebody had moved it. All of the jellies were lion’s manes and they were all dead and battered. And they were hard to see, since part of their bodies were clear and the other part was the same color as the seaweed floating around them. I’m sure I missed some in plain sight. Where a fin of rock got in the way or if the angle of the sun prevented my looking in the water I’m sure I missed more.

By the time I got back to the ferry dock I’d counted fifty-two (plus the two I’d seen from the ferry on the way over). I’d walked less than a mile of coastline.

I tell this story, not because it told me anything I didn’t know when I wrote my last post on jellyfish, and not because fifty-some jellyfish in one place couldn’t have happened before human-caused climate change. It’s because more jellyfish blooms is probably part of the new normal of a changing climate and this is what it feels like to be confronted by the new normal–it is a queasy, uncomfortable feeling. You want to say, as my mother did, “stop!”


Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

4 thoughts on “Jellyfish Tide

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