Invasion of the Jellies


We’ve all heard the dire figures, how, in the not so distant future, we’ll be wiggling along fat burgers, coming to terms with an eternal high tide; enduring the constant onshore brought about by extreme El Nino and La Niña events; remembering a time when offshore winds combed the seas smooth and barrels broke along colourful reef beds (now all dead) in island nations that no longer exist (now all drowned). Sadly, that’s not where the turmoil ends.
In this bleak future, there are also no
fish either. We surf in a denuded and homogenous sea. But there are… jellyfish, heaps of ‘em, and they are going ham- sanga in the dramatically altered climate. It’s common knowledge that many marine species are under threat, but it may come as a surprise that jellyfish are enjoying
a kind of renaissance. We’ve spent the
last few decades worrying about the burgeoning human crowds clogging up our favourite surf spots, but imagine sharing your local with a 10,000-strong-army of jellyfish. Sting!

Blubbery, colourful, pulsing, mesmerising, lethal, otherworldly. Jellyfish are those weird-o creatures that have endured on earth for over 500 million years. “Jellyfish are among the world’s most successful organisms,” explains scientist and jellyfish expert Lisa-ann Gershwin, “having survived freezes, thaws, superheated conditions, shifting and rearranging continents, mass extinctions, meteor strikes, predators, competitors, and even man. And all the while, as creatures around

them evolved tails and feet and brains and learned to breathe and fly, jellyfish have persisted as they are.” It might be their simple make-up, reckons Gershwin, that has allowed them to become such successful multi-millennial survivors.

Unfortunately for us, everything to do with global warming seems to be beneficial to jellyfish. They are like the weeds of the
sea – once jellyfish have a foot in the door, they are extremely difficult to get a handle on. By over-fishing, humans have removed the predators and competitors of jellyfish, while increased water temperatures allow them to flourish. In recent times, jellyfish have been observed in swarms blanketing hundreds of miles of ocean, they have

shut down power plants and halted naval operations. But let’s address the million- dollar question concerning us: are deadly jellyfish migrating beyond their traditional tropical locales and into more populated and wave-rich areas?

Some reports would suggest that this dreaded migration has already begun. In January of this year, the ABC reported that eight people were flown by helicopter from Fraser Island with suspected Irukandji stings. Irukandji started to turn up at this latitude about 10-12 years ago, but only for a three-four week window. In the 2018-2019 summer, there were sightings over a two and a half month period. It’s not rocket science, box jellyfish ‘arrive’ when the water is above 26 degrees, so as warmer waters hang around for longer, so too does the jellyfish season lengthen. More time
in boardies might seem like one of the few positive outcomes of climate change, but not if it means sharing the waters with stingers. Who knows how long it will be until one of the buggers pops up at Noosa

Heads, a mere five-hour drive to the south of Fraser. Imagine if the entire surfing populations off south-east QLD had to take their pastime across the border during the summer months.

Steady up – it’s not a done deal. Gershwin reckons it’s too early to know if box jellyfish and Irukandji are migrating. Certain species of Irukandji, she says, already live in colder climates, and have done for more than 100 years. A report of
a few random jellies being found south of the Barrier Reef does not necessarily imply migratory trends. Furthermore, jellyfish don’t just swim to a new latitude and start a new life. “They need their entire habitat to move with them… and this takes time.” It’s worth noting too, that while many jellyfish species are beginning to dominate ecosystems, box jellies and Irukandji are highly specialised creatures compared with their simple-celled brethren, which puts them in a more precarious position in rapidly changing environments.

But what is the broader upshot of jellyfish blooms on our oceans and by extension,
on us? Blooms of any species tell us that something is fundamentally out of whack. They thrive in conditions that other species cannot. They exploit disturbed ecosystems, damaging the normal function of the marine environment, upsetting the food chain and decimating biodiversity. Maybe it’s time we looked beyond our needs as surfers, and considered the state of the ocean as a whole. The sea does so many things for us. It carries and stores nutrients, filters the air, tempers local weather patterns, buffers climate change and provides half the oxygen we breathe. Jellyfish are a symptom of a sick ocean, and one we should all be paying much closer attention to.

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