Coin-sized creatures beached on Chennai shores

Have you spotted jewel-blue jellyfish-like creatures on the city’s beaches yet? We speak to marine life enthusiasts to know more about these beautiful but dangerous beings

Published - March 12, 2019 04:01 pm IST

Most people avoid the scalding sands of Chennai’s beaches in the peak afternoon, when the sea recedes into low tide and the sun shines its most unforgiving glares. But not musician and teacher M Yuvan. He spends a lot of time on the beach at that time of the day, frequenting Besant Nagar beach and Thiruvanmiyur beach whenever he can. Because that’s when he can see them — the glistening, jewel-blue relatives of jellyfish that have been washing up in large numbers on Chennai’s shores since January.

Porpita porpitas — also called blue buttons — and Velella velellas are hydrozoa. Each of these hydrozoa is not a single organism, but an organism colony. These jellyfish-like creatures come together to create a single organism,” explains the active member of Madras Naturalists Society. His conversations with other enthusiasts in the city, as well as with online forums, show that they have been washing up on the New Jersey coast (US) as well.

A sea of blue

“Sightings were particularly heavy till mid-February,” he says, adding, “I could see at least five of these creatures washed up with every stride I took. People have been spotting them on Neelankarai beach as well: in fact, right along this stretch of the coast, on every beach from Broken Bridge right up to Puducherry.”

No one is sure why these creatures have been uncharacteristically washing up in large numbers, but this is not the first time such a thing has happended. “Species like blue buttons were seen on the shore during the Gaja floods,” says Gheshna, NGO worker and marine and wildlife enthusiast. “After that, I haven’t seen them. Till January, when they keep coming up now and then.”

“A lot of jellyfish and other creatures have been washing up. I saw Glaucus atlanticus as well: which is a kind of sea slug,” adds Gheshna.

The numbers for the latter are striking: “about 150 to 200 of them at every 100 metres or so near Thiruvanmiyur and Kottivakkam beaches,” she says. “I haven’t been able to go very frequently lately, but the numbers peaked in February,” she adds.

Though the sightings have created a buzz among marine life enthusiasts and online circuits, people seem more curious than worried about them. “I have been discussing it with Marine Life of Mumbai (a collective of people who document marine life in Mumbai) because I know people there. And no one seems to be very concerned about them,” says Gheshna.

Tread carefully

There is, however, one cause for concern: though coin-sized and beautiful to look at, blue buttons can be somewhat dangerous.

“Each has tentacles that sting,” says Yuvan. “But they cannot swim and are not capable of any kind of movement. They are at the mercy of the winds and tides, and ususally wash up during cyclones. Though we haven’t faced any such thing on land, maybe something occurred in the sea that brought them here.” But this is conjecture, and he admits as much.

But Shaunak Modi, a member of the Marine Life of Mumbai collective, reiterates this, and adds that vagaries in winds and currents are not that unusual. He isn’t surprised by the sightings of these creatures on the East coast, but does feel the need to send out a warning. “Their sting can last for hours if you touch them or step on them, and can hurt quite a bit. So be careful if you spot them, and go to a hospital if you are stung.”

What interests him more is that the beaching of blue buttons has attracted other creatures that feed on it to Chennai’s beaches: creatures like Glaucus atlanticus , a kind of sea slug whose sighting is rarer than that of a blue button itself.

Blue buttons are not to be confused with blue bottles, which is the common name for the Portugese man of war. That particular jellyfish has not been sighted much along this stretch of coast these past three months, unlike the West coast last August, when they caused a string of injuries to beach goers in Mumbai.

Sightings still continue, but “In March, the numbers are much smaller: about a dozen or so every 100 metres,” says Yuvan. So, mysteriously as these beachings began, they seem to be fading away just as inexplicably.

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