When I visited the ocean as a child, I was fearless. Plunging in and out of the waves without a thought for what lay below the surface, you couldn’t tear me out of the water. I would stay there for hours at a time. Tanning? Who needs it? I would much rather be swimming, bodysurfing or using one of a long line of boogie boards bought at a resort-town beach shop that were always ruined by the end of the vacation season.
But then something happened.
I couldn’t tell you how it happened. I couldn’t tell you exactly when. All I know is, sometime between elementary and high school vacations, I developed a crippling fear of jellyfish.
I never had any kind of bad experience with a jellyfish in person. I don't remember ever seeing a jellyfish an aquarium that provoked the fear. But one sunny day near Hilton Head Island, my fate was sealed. And my carefree bodysurfing days were over.
My first close encounter with a jellyfish occurred when I was about 15 years old. (This was right in the middle of my Gone with the Wind phase, and I remember it happened before I could drive, which puts me at about that age.) I was sitting in the shallows of the Atlantic Ocean, enjoying the waves while my mother and her best friend stood ankle-deep in the water and chatted.
There I sat, minding my own business, when suddenly my mom, interrupting herself briefly during a characteristically long discussion, remarked casually, “Watch out for the jellyfish.”
To me, jellyfish were (up until that point) exotic creatures only inhabiting tropical locales, possibly endemic to the Great Barrier Reef alone, far far away from me. And now there was one of these creepers not only within the sphere of my awareness, but less than five feet from my person?
I defy anyone to tell me that they aren’t a little bit put off by these creatures, especially when you are sitting in an ocean they inhabit at the moment you learn jellyfish may be close.
I mean, a jellyfish has no face. You can see through a jellyfish, and nothing resembling a brain is in evidence. And yet jellyfish know what they want to do. They want to eat. Eat. You. Despite the lack of any ocular apparatus, a jellyfish knows where you are. And this creature will come to you. Jellyfish don’t swim, instead they “bloop-bloop-bloop” towards you, blindly feeling their way along, while its jellyfishy tentacles float ghost-like through the water. And then this jellyfish will paralyze you with electrical shocks until you’re sufficiently compliant and will follow-up by absorbing you through a hole in the bottom of its jellyfish head.
That’s just wrong! Tell me that’s not something directly out of a 1960s B-movie horror feature.
And on top of that, I recently learned that jellyfish are functionally immortal. When their adult bodies get too distressed, they can revert back to their polyp stage and begin the whole cycle again.
A few days later, my mother, her friend and I took a ferry out into Charleston Harbor. I looked over the side of the boat, and lo and behold, the water was chock full of jellyfish.
And I'm not talking about a few solitary, healthy-looking clear jellyfish. These were dead. The jellyfish were brown, and floating on the surface, as far as the eye could see. I counted hundreds as I stood, white-knuckling the ferry’s railing and trying not to have a complete psychological breakdown. I’m shuddering even now, twelve years later.
You see, one would think that I would enjoy the sight of dead jellyfish, since I hate their living counterparts so deeply. Not so. Dead jellyfish are every bit as scary as live jellyfish. Dead jellyfish can still sting you. And they’re brown, so they blend in with the sand on the beach, so if you’re not looking carefully at where you are walking, it’s quite possible to step on one. Can you imagine the somewhat warm, squishy consistency of its head under your foot before its zombie tentacles shock you so hard you wish you never had a foot?
Not that I’d know from personal experience. I’ve never stepped on one. This is an example of a fear that is entirely imagination-based.
In fact, when I do see a dead jellyfish slyly camouflaged in the sand, I take the opportunity to make a hasty retreat from the scene.
And by that I mean I scream like a little girl and run away as fast as I can.
And so, though I still love the beach, I’m always just a little bit terrified to be in the ocean. Especially if I can’t see the bottom. My feet start to tingle with the desire to spring out of the water and run for my life where the little gushy jellyfish creatures can’t get me.
It makes me eternally grateful that I live within an hour’s drive of the Lake Michigan beaches – a freshwater haven free of the terrors of the jellyfish.
At least until the next evolutionary advance or catastrophic climate change.