Tiny velella sail by before stormy seas

By-the-wind sailor is a non stinging relative of jellyfish about 4 inches long and 3 inches wide. ©2014 Susan Scott

BUNDABERG, Australia » After a weeklong passage from New Caledonia, Honu is safely in a marina on Queensland’s south coast. Even so, my body thinks we’re still at sea because I have “mal de terre,” the French phrase for land sickness. This happens when the seas have been particularly rough.

The voyage didn’t start that way. For six days the wind was light, and the boat moved with a pleasant motion.

One day during those mild conditions, Craig noticed shiny disks dotting the water’s surface. They were by-the-wind sailors, the jellyfish relatives in the news recently after washing up on the U.S. West Coast by the millions.

Also known as Velella, the floating, nonstinging (to humans) creatures, about 4 inches long and 3 inches wide, bobbed on the surface as far as we could see.

I had read about enormous numbers of these creatures surrounding sailboats offshore, but this was the first time I saw it. The jelly boats ran downwind with us all day, their clear sails scooting them along while their tiny tentacles trolled for plankton. When a waved capsized them, the bottom-heavy animals popped back up and sailed on.

Because I had only seen these offshore animals dead on the beach, I wanted to see one alive in its element. Craig tied a colander to the end of the boat hook and scooped one up.

The jelly sailor was magnificent, its clear sail and blue hull radiant in the morning sun. After taking its picture, we returned the little boat to its fleet and wished it fair winds.

But none of us were that lucky. As we headed toward a 20-mile-wide pass through the Great Barrier Reef, lightning flashed ahead. With landfall only 100 miles away, we forged on. Soon thunder roared, lightning struck the water around us, and rain pounded with such force the drops felt like hailstones. We had sailed into the center of a storm.

As we breathed a sigh of relief over making it through hours of forked lightning and bellowing head winds, another thunderstorm appeared, lighting the leaping waves like a discotheque from hell.

That night we sailed through storm after exhausting storm, each time thinking it was the last. After four such tempests, the skies cleared, dawn broke and we sailed into the harbor of Bundaberg.

After friendly customs officers cleared the boat for entry into Australia, I walked to the nearby beach. There on the sand lay hundreds of Velella jellies, shipwrecked by the storms.

Even days later the ground still moves beneath my feet, and the sensation gives me a touch of nausea. But that’s OK. I’m just happy that unlike a host of our tiny fellow sailors, Honu made it safely to port.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2014 Susan Scott