Swimming in a jellyfish swarm

huge jellyfish at Bako

When we explored Malaysia’s Bako National Park with our friends from Seattle recently, we started to notice the jellyfish when we were still a few miles from the anchorage near Pulau Lakei. At first we thought the billowing white shapes were plastic bags floating just underwater, a sad commentary on how accustomed we have become to seeing a large volume of trash in the water in Southeast Asia. Upon closer examination, it was clear these ghostly floats were the umbrellas (heads) of jellyfish- not garbage after all.
They moved slowly, drifting with the current, so when the anchor was set we went for a swim to see them first hand. Having recently missed on identifying the highly toxic box jellyfish (oops) and knowing nothing about this species, we were VERY careful to avoid any contact. We could see dozens from the boat, but with visibility and agility skewed heavily in our favor there was minimal risk associated with getting a close-up look.
They were simply gorgeous.
huge jellyfish at Bako
When large numbers are co-located, it’s called a bloom, not a swarm. Since jellyfish are an important part of the marine ecosystem, shame on me for using the scare-factor term like ‘swarm’ instead of the benign and more accurate) bloom. Like other misunderstood marine creatures like sharks, jellyfish need respect- not misinformation! 
These big jellies are caught locally for food. We didn’t see that in action, but a Canadian conservationist has an interesting writeup with a great series of images on his blog. Our experience sampling jellyfish at a small restaurant in Kuching was… well, not something we need to repeat. It was just very bland, like trying to eat rubberbands. The only flavor was from the incredibly spicy sauce. Excellent sauce, but I can find tastier vehicles for it.
huge jellyfish at Bako
Besides being a source of food for humans, these jellyfish are an even more important food source for turtles and large fish. It’s nesting season and we saw a lot of big turtles popping their heads out of the water for a breath of air (between jellyfish snacks no doubt!). The jellies also protect smaller fish from their predators: a number of little fish found refuge among their stinging cells. Honestly, isn’t this kind of cute?
huge jellyfish at Bako
Most of the jellyfish were the large species shown above and in Ronald’s blog, predominantly white with delicate pink coloration along the tentacles. Thanks to Christopher Mah and a lively discussion on Facebook, I learned the are probably a sister to Crambione mastigiophora. They weren’t the only ones, though. These stunning jellies were much smaller but hello, vibrant! Reminded me of cartoon mushrooms.
huge jellyfish at Bako
Niall had the idea to take some photos from underneath the jellies. The images of these same big jellyfish seen through the light was startling and beautiful.
huge jellyfish at Bako
The biologists on Facebook helpfully guided me to a few resources. I’m really looking forward to downloading a species guide when our internet access is good enough. Meanwhile, there’s a lot more to learn from Jellywatch. We’ll be following them and submitting sightings of blooms there too.

6 Responses to Swimming in a jellyfish swarm

  1. whereisyvette.com August 30, 2013 at 6:23 pm #

    Awesome. 🙂 Question, were any of them phosphorescent jellyfish at night? One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen was when my family was anchoring on a sailboat off Norman Island in the British Virgin Islands, and ended up a ways off the main anchorage as it was crowded… but it turns out on the stretch we were the water was filled with jellyfish that lit up when it got dark. Mesmerizing.

    • Behan Gifford August 30, 2013 at 9:45 pm #

      We did not experience bioluminescence in that spot. It’s pretty cool when you can, for sure! Our favorite was in Controller Bay, Nuku Hiva, Marquesas. Plankton in the bay made the entire water appear uniformly “glowy”, with extra bright lines around any moving creatures- giving us a deck view of hammerhead sharks, giant mantas, and more through their glowing outlines in the murk. One of our most mesmerizing cruising experiences- amazing!

  2. boatbaby August 31, 2013 at 8:10 am #

    I have to be honest, jellies scare the begeezes out of me. More than sharks or anything else. A bloggy friend of mine and her husband were recently killed by jellies in Australia while her kids watched. That didn’t help my phobia. Be careful friend. However, I do think they are amazing and beautiful and mysterious… ya know, from the computer screen.

    • Behan Gifford August 31, 2013 at 8:27 am #

      Cindy, that’s really scary. It definitely shook me up that we recently mis-identified a box jellyfish… I photographed it, put it on our FB page, and smarter people than me pointed it out. Yikes. And as another friend of mine pointed out, the tentacles can trail for a very long distance, barely visible in the water. Definitely need to offer a lot of respect and space to these beautiful creatures.

  3. Rumila Marienau August 31, 2013 at 10:40 am #

    Okay! i’m gonna spit it out! i am really afraid of jelly fish! 😉 but this picture are awesome!!!! whew! breathtaking! you and the kids are so brave!

  4. SY Sari Timur September 5, 2013 at 9:25 am #

    great photos of the jellyfish! when we were in Palau, we went snorkeling in the jellyfish lake. it was awesome, millions of jellyfish and no stingies. by the way, we love eating jellyfish. don’t ask us why, and you’re right, no taste except for the spicy sauce. call it culture conditioning. when we were at Raffles Marina in Singapore, the jellyfish turned up at certain seasons, clear and blue ones and we see them as tiny blobs and then they grow to rather big (like if you touch your fingertips together and make a circle with your hands). once we had a big one whose umbrella was being sucked up our aircon water intake. Mark had to go swimming and dislodge it. it was not happy and gave Mark a few swipes with its tentacles.

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