It was on a whim one day, a short drive down the coast from Monterey, California, to see if the rumors were true. Unusual sea creatures washing up, gelatinous, some completely clear, some bright blue, with delicate translucent sails.
Arriving at the beach, at first glance the tangle of kelp appeared to hold tiny circles of tissue paper. As I walked closer to the breaking waves, I saw at my feet small groups of jelly-like forms, some with splashes of vivid color. It quickly became apparent that many of these ocean travellers had washed ashore and dried out for lack of water. Luckily, some fresher specimens remained.
Velella velella have many names, from “sea raft” to “by-the-wind sailor” and are actually colonies of hydroids; each circular cnidarian raft and sail is made up of many hydrozoa, sailing the open ocean propelled by the wind.
A stranding like this one occurs when the wind drives the Velella velella to shore. They are carnivorous, feeding on plankton caught with their dangling tentacles. In the same ocean surface community as the better known Portuguese Man o’ War, Velella velella are likewise toxic but relatively harmless to humans, though they should not be touched or handled if it can be avoided. I chose only to take photographs, crouching in the damp, pebbled beach and kelp as the tide came in, marvelling at such strange natural beauty. I had lived close to the ocean and visited these particular shores often for nearly 10 years, and had never before seen anything like these tiny ocean wanderers.