Sunday, December 4, 2011

Aurelia aurita

Scratch another one off the bucket list.

Have you ever heard of the Aurelia aurita?

Unless you're a native Latin speaker or a biology professor, you probably haven't.

It's also known as a "moon jelly":


And I can honestly say that I know what they feel like to touch. I indulged in some heavy petting with a moon jelly down in Long Beach last Wednesday.

My folks took Miss H and I down to the Aquarium of the Pacific as a sort of farewell thing. (We're not leaving until February, but we were originally leaving in September, and then paperwork delays pushed that back to December, and the roof fell in, so...here we are. Best to get it done before anything else happens.)

We had a ball. The aquarium was smaller than I remembered, but still chock-full of some mind-blasting exhibits. A giant sea bass the size of an armchair swam back and forth in the main gallery; sea otters broke chunks of ice into small pieces and ate them with relish; the bat rays flopped out of the water for a pat on their slimy noggins; and the moray eels poked their evil heads from their holes, like old men glaring at noisy children on the sidewalk.

And then it happened.

In the middle of the Polar Seas display room was a rectangular basin of water, about the depth of a goldfish tank, but as long as a horse trough. In this tank, pulsating to and fro, was a gaggle of pale, bulbous, semi-translucent creatures resembling nothing so much as ragged, waterlogged pieces of tissue paper. They floated about, drifting with the gentle current, expanding and contracting their mantles lazily.

As soon as I saw the aquarium staff member standing behind the tank and the
Purell dispensers on the wall, I understood what was going on. 

A rare opportunity had thrown itself my way. I was going to pet a jellyfish. 

So I rolled up the sleeve of my jacket, took my place in line, stuck out two fingers, and dove in with a relish. 

My rubric for stroking aquatic creatures is not extensive. In my youth, I had handled live goldfish, and I had petted the bat rays 40 minutes earlier. This was the limit of my experience. Thus far, I had observed several commonalities between species: the firmness of the flesh, the coldness of the skin and a general pervading sliminess. The moon jelly, surprisingly, possessed all three. In touching the mantle with the first two fingers of my right hand, I expected a yielding, gelatinous substance, as tenuous as it was transparent. Though undoubtedly soft, the jellyfish was relatively rigid to the touch; I felt as though I would have to poke it much harder to make an impression in the flesh. Fortunately, I had the good sense and the biological politeness not to test this hypothesis. Keeping my hand well away from the tentacles of the onrushing herd of the moon jelly's fellows, I withdrew my hand and sanitized it.

For some reason, I was suddenly hungry.

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