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Jellyfish in the Harbor
A rare winter sighting
March 17, 2008

ellyfish are not a common sight around Oriental in the winter. But today, there’s been one lounging near the concrete wall at the Town Dock.

Jellyfish near the Town Dock.

According to several marine experts we checked with, this drifter is a Mushroom Cap Jelly, aka Rhopilema verrilli.

At the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, education curator Windy Arey-Kent says that although the Mushroom Cap Jelly is “rather rare, it does appear regularly in the Pamlico Sound and can be found in bays as far north as Long Island Sound.”

Bill Kirby-Smith with the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort agrees that they are “common in Pamlico… but usually in the summer.”

Why it’s here now, in the confines of the inner inner harbor, is not certain. The jellyfish wasn’t talking.

Jellyfish and its shadow.

But Windy Arey-Kent and colleagues at the aquarium offer some explanation. All jellyfish, she says, are considered to be planktonic, meaning “they do not have the ability to ‘swim’.” and their propulsion systems aren’t strong enough to buck the current. (Or as Jennifer Hoskins, another educator at the NC Aquarium puts it, “jellyfish are very large plankton.. and go with the flow.”)

“It is likely,” Arey-Kent says, “that Saturday’s storm blew this animal in to the harbor,” and that once here, it appears to be staying “in a protected area free of strong currents.”

So, was the jellyfish lounging by the cement wall because that was a sunny, southern exposure? Well, only in terms of finding a good, warm meal. Arey-Kent says the jellyfish “most likely is not moving toward light. If it is intentionally moving at all, it is probably moving towards a food source.” Though there is algae along that wall, she says, the jellyfish is more likely dining on the small fish swimming nearby.

Look more closely and you may see a small shiny fish caught up inside.

“So, is it happy there?,” you may be asking anthropomorphically. Arey-Kent noted that “jellyfish don’t have brains, but a complex group of nerve cells.” And so, the scientist said, “this individual doesn’t have the capacity to be ‘happy’ or a preference as to habitat.”

They just go where the warmer wind currents take them. Usually, she says, we would see them in the later summer months, but if there’s a healthy population in Pamlico Sound, they could be seen any time of year.

Jack keeps his distance. (He would not come back to get in finer focus for this photo. No sir, thank you very much.)

In any event, our contact with jellyfish — ouch — is usually with sea nettles. And that’s in the warmer months when the waters are much murkier than in the cold of winter when clearer water allows us — or at least our camera lens — to get closer.

If you passed by quickly, you might’ve missed it. But it was there most of the day Monday, hanging back near the Town Dock wharf, absorbing the sun.
Below the surface, things may have been calmer, but up above the jellyfish, the winds were making ripples.

Posted Monday March 17, 2008 by Melinda Penkava

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