I think that I experienced just a tiny bit of the joy that a scientist must feel in making a new discovery. The thrill of seeing something completely unexpected is sort of magical, almost intoxicating, to gaze upon all angles of a thing that until that moment you never knew existed.
Yeah, I’m a nature girl, but it wasn’t just me. Beach goers all up and down the west coast saw these tiny blue sailors and stopped and wondered why and where and how.
Velella velella. By-the-wind-sailors.
I’ve been combing California beaches nearly 40 years and have never seen one. Nor had my father, nor others walking the beaches who echoed the same and mentioned seeing them on the news.
They aren’t meant to cling to rocks. Only float. But the underside is sticky, so washed up on a beach, they find themselves stuck to things – unnaturally. I picked a few up near Monterrey. The fin is easy to pick up feeling a bit like vellum, not as sticky and much more rigid than the rest. I found that if it was blue, it was still sticky. When dried completely, they become small white papery disks.
Normally velella spend their time out at sea where they prefer the warmer waters of the Pacific. Fisherman know them well, the 3” jellyfish floating gracefully on the surface of the water, tiny tentacles catching plankton below, and a single rigid sail catching the wind to push them along. Both blessing and curse, it’s this sail with the wrong wind that will strand them by the millions, sometimes centimeters deep, on far away beaches.
I stopped at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach quickly on my last day here in hopes of catching sight of these once more. From the parking lot, they were barely discernible. I thought perhaps they were gone, but then I noticed the dried ones in sandy clumps, then these, still beautiful and blue, their reflection shown in the wet sand as the waves came in and pushed them in just a bit farther.
Like the waterfalls of Bejís or the elegance of an osprey, these are another natural wonder that I had to tear myself away from. As the sun set, I could have photographed them much longer, the soft golden light shining through the sails.
I didn’t think much of their sails at first. They provide the velella’s only movement – a victim of the wind and waves. I learned later that others, with sails positioned just the opposite, will arrive on the western Pacific coast.
These have their sail in a NW to SE diagonal on their bodies thus finding themselves on eastern Pacific beaches (in the Northern Hemisphere) while others with their sails opposite (NE to SW) end up on the western part of the Pacific. In the Southern Hemisphere, it’s just the opposite.
Apparently there’s a purple slug that feeds on them at sea. Here, the seagulls pick at them randomly, but they don’t seem too impressed. It’s a bit sad to see them all here and know that they are dying in such great numbers, but I’m happy to have seen them, learned about a new beauty, and oddly enough, I even have a couple dried ones among the seashells I brought home.