"They're sort of like nature's lava lamp, right?" says Dave Bader, the Education Director at the Aquarium of the Pacific. I'm talking with him in what the Aquarium calls "Jelly Land," where employees raise and care for the aquarium's sea jellies.
It's all part of the Aquarium's new exhibit on sea jellies, which opened last week. Visitors will get to see purple striped jellies, jellies that light up in the dark and jellies they can touch.
Jelly Land is a huge, noisy, fluorescent-lit room surrounded by water tanks of nearly every shape and size. If you're used to seeing sea jellies in stark, dramatic lighting, Jelly Land takes some getting used to – some of the smaller, more translucent jellies are easy to miss at first.
"They're just sort of pulsing through the water. They have no brain, no heart – very simple nerve nets, very simple organisms and yet there are just a number of different species. They live in all different habitats," says Bader. "[They're] just beautiful, amazing creatures."
Although sea jellies are relatively simple organisms, the raising and upkeep of sea jellies is complex work. The aquarium gets its supply of jellies from other research centers and aquariums in the area. As they do in the ocean, the aquarium's sea jellies start out as polyps. They look like tiny, almost microscopic specks at this point.
"We get them to settle on little petri dishes," says Joshua Wagner, who works in the sea jelly program. "In this form, they actually clone themselves. They'll breed asexually and make a whole bunch of different, genetically identical polyps."
But polyps, alas, aren't jellies. When Wagner wants the polyps to change, he has to trick them into thinking the season's changed to winter. He moves them to a colder box, cueing them to shoot off smaller jellies. Within a few weeks, the jellies are full grown and on display (watch them move in these animated GIFS).
As you might expect, working with sea jellies means getting your fair share of stings. Wagner says he gets stung almost every day, but nothing worth sending him to a hospital. His worst sting came from an Indonesian sea nettle. "The immediate feeling is like if you run your arm into a cactus," he says. "And then it itched for two days after."
The Aquarium of the Pacific's Sea Jellies exhibit is open now. Check the aquarium website for hours and info.