On a recent visit to Tofino, I noticed thousands of small, electric-blue marine creatures scattered all over the beaches like washed up jellyfish. Naturally, my first instinct was to grab one by its little translucent fin and give it a thorough examination. Their underside resembled an anemone while their top sported the cellophane-like fin I had first grabbed. Each creature was oval shaped and only a few centimeters long.
My initial feeling of awe soon turned to frustration when I found I could not identify the creature. Apparently I was not the only one unfamiliar with these blue animals. I started to think nobody would know what they were, when on the last day, my surf instructor was able to give me the name Velella velella.
As it turns out, knowledge about Velella velella is still limited, but we do know that they are carnivorous relatives of jellyfish. Unlike jellyfish, they cannot swim underwater in the direction of their choice. They are at the mercy of the currents, floating on the surface of the ocean and catching the wind with their sails. Experts believe Velella velella begin their life cycle submerged far off shore, and spend their adult life on the surface of the ocean until getting washed ashore in different parts of the world.
Velella velella is usually distributed throughout tropical waters around the globe, leaving its highly unusual mass appearance on Tofino beaches an inexplicable mystery. Previously, it was thought to be an unusual occurrence on Oregon beaches, but this summer Velella velella was spotted in Washington State, on Vancouver Island and as far north as Haida Gwaii.
Why did these blue creatures wash ashore in Canada? It’s likely that unusual winds and currents brought Velella velella to the Pacific Northwest. One idea links agricultural runoff to an increase in jellyfish-like creatures. Runoff from farms can contribute to algae and plankton growth, and since plankton is a food source for jellyfish and related species, the increase in food could lead to an abundance of jellyfish and Velella velella populations. An increased population of Velella velella might then explain why we are seeing them farther north.
Meanwhile, some are hypothesizing that overfishing and decreases in marine mammal populations are leaving less predators than usual to eat jellyfish and Velella velella, thus allowing their populations to explode.
With 71% of our earth covered in oceans and 95% of those waters unexplored, Velella velella are just one of thousands of species remaining to be discovered! What are we waiting for?