Thinking Jellies

Image by Michael Pechardo, Sourced: Unsplash

Early this year, the European Science Foundation announced the launch of GoJelly, an initiative that aspires to use “jellyfish raw material” to develop a filter capable of removing microplastics from the ocean. The matter in question is mucus, which jellyfish secrete and which, it has been observed, has the power to trap tiny things,1 including drops of oil.2 GoJelly promises to tackle “two environmental issues with one approach[,] by removing the commercially and ecologically destructive sea and coastal pollution of both jellyfish and microplastics.”3 It’s an astounding alignment, isn’t it? What does it say about language, and about imagination, that it’s possible to couple living organisms and miniscule rubbish in this way – to conjoin them, rhetorically and literally, as an unsavoury pair in need of cleaning up?

In so asking, I don’t necessarily mean to imply that GoJelly is strictly wrongheaded (or, em, wrongbelled). Indeed, its plan reminds us that as challenging junctures among life, detritus, climate change, and planetary health proliferate, it’s imperative that we think hard about how to interact with them. Next Tuesday, I’ll have the privilege of contributing to Jellyfish Behaving Badly?, a collaboration between the Sydney Environment Institute, Sydney Ideas, and the Sydney Science Festival. I’ll be warming up for Dr Jude Philp, senior curator at the Macleay Museum; Professor Maria Byrne and Associate Professor Will Figueira, of the University of Sydney’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences; and Distinguished Professor Mike Kingsford, of James Cook University. We’ll be fixing our minds on jellyfish lives: on what they mean and have meant for human culture and science, on how their behaviour may be changing due to climate change, and on what this means for Australian, and more broadly oceanic, waters.

“There’s an invasion underway.” So begins the précis for a Discovery Channel film called Attack of the Giant Jellyfish. As the pitch continues, it grows more strident: “An army of brainless, bloodless phantoms, billions strong, is taking over our oceans, destroying our food supply, and turning our beaches into battle zones…Are they really mindless blobs or is the enemy smarter than anyone ever predicted?”4 Weird stuff, this – and if it’s manifestly sensational, it still bears thinking about, because it’s an extreme coagulation of tropes that operate widely and potently in many realms of discourse. In a basic sense, the idea of antagonism – of invasions, armies, battles, enemies, and so on – structures this vision of relations among human societies (and perhaps human civilization) and jellyfish. And to characterise medusas as “phantoms” is to place them, along with zombies and other monsters, beyond the bounds of what’s taken to constitute normal life. Strangest of all, perhaps, is the implication, unexpressed but unavoidable, that to do war with jellies is to do war with the multiplying signs of overfishing, marine pollution, and climate change – to do war, in other words, with the signs of human selves.

Early in Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone (2017), Juli Berwald describes happening upon an alarmist jellyfish documentary while channel-surfing in a Monterey Bay motel room. (I suspect, but am not sure, it’s the same one I mention above.) For Berwald, what’s actually alarming about what she sees and hears is the fact that, instead of an account of “the extraordinary capabilities” of jellyfish, the film conjures “a deranged army rising from the deep in order to sink our ships and sting humankind into submission.”5 What’s bewildering and disappointing, in a simple but significant way, is that despite the admiration and wonder that are everywhere available in jellyfishes’ vicinity, representation leans on lame convention and tired cliché. Better stories are required, and Berwald is one among numerous people who are working hard to tell them.

In preparing for Tuesday, I’ve found inspiration in a multitude of places, not least in the bodies, movements, and habits of jellyfish themselves. And while I’m entirely new to it, I have to mention the art of Jeannie Holroyd, from Pormpuraaw, in northern Queensland. Holroyd’s jellyfish works are marvellous concatenations of form, craft, and matter – under “medium,” one piece lists “ghostnet, bird wire, fast clips, recycled cable, rope, enamel and acrylic paint.” These jellies move beyond the ken of hubris and banality, enacting a confrontation with the debris of human industry that is, at the same time, a practice of reimagining the shape that its wake might take. Jellies need knowing, feeling, and imagining, now as ever. Next week, we’ll be sharing a few ways of doing so, and inviting a great many more.


1. See, for instance, Amit Patwa et al., (2015). “Accumulation of nanoparticles in ‘jellyfish’ mucus: a bio-inspired route to decontamination of nano-waste.” Science Reports 5(1): 1-8.
2. “Moon Jellyfish With Oil & Mucus.” Smithsonian. Accessed August 10, 2018. Access here.
3. “GoJelly: Project Summary.” Science Connect. European Science Foundation. Accessed August 10, 2018. Access here.
4. “Attack of the Giant Jellyfish. Discovery Press Web: Asia-Pacific. Discovery Communications. Accessed August 10, 2018. Acess here.
5. Juli Berwald, Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone. Carlton, Victoria: Black Inc., 59.

Killian Quigley is a postdoc at SEI. He is the co-editor, with Margaret Cohen, of The Aesthetics of the Undersea, forthcoming in November.