By Joe Smillie
Peninsula Daily News
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The creatures are called Velella velella, though they're also commonly referred to as “by-the-wind sailors,” according to Ed Bowlby, research and monitoring coordinator for the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.
“They have this little sail that sticks up they use to tack into the wind,” Bowlby said.
“In certain wind conditions, they will get aggregated together and create these kind of bizarre-looking spots.
“Some of our air surveys have misidentified them as oil slicks on the water.”
Forage with tentacles
Relatives of jellyfish and coral, Velella velella catch food using tentacles that hang down from their bodies.
With their brilliant-blue bodies, large groups of the creatures can be quite a sight.
“Their color — that brilliant-bright blue color is something you don't see in nature very often,” said Theresa Tetreau, director of the Forks Library and a volunteer for the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team, known by the acronym COASST.
Tetreau came across collections of freshly washed-up Velella velella just after the tide receded from the beach north of Mosquito Creek south of LaPush on Aug. 10.
“There were just hundreds of them, and that bright-blue color,” Tetreau said.
The day before, mass conglomerations of blue Velella velella were spotted by fellow COASST volunteers Sue Keilman and Scott Horton from their boat off LaPush.
“When there are huge numbers of them, it can look pretty spectacular,” Bowlby said.
Color fades away
But after a few days, that spectacular look fades with the creatures' color.
“When they die, they get bleached and get this look kind of like a cellophane parchment,” Bowlby said.
“During our beach cleanups, we've had people rake them up thinking they're plastic marine debris.”
Though it is a jellyfish, the Velella velella's stingers are not powerful enough to get through human skin.
It mostly eats plankton and fish eggs. “Unless you're a plankton, you shouldn't have too much to worry about,” Bowlby said.
Sightings of Velella velella have been noted this month down the Washington, Oregon and California coasts as far south as San Diego.
The creatures live both in open ocean and close to shore and go where the wind and current takes them, per Bowlby.
So when might the Peninsula see them gather again?
“It periodically occurs, that they group like this,” Bowlby said. “But as for forecasting when it might happen, nobody really knows.”
COASST, a citizen science program based at the University of Washington, partners with the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary to recruit locals to conduct surveys that help document nearshore health and large-scale beaching events.
For more about COASST, visit www.depts.washington.edu/coasst.
For more on the sanctuary, visit www.olympiccoast.noaa.gov.
Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Joe Smillie can be reached at 360-681-2390, ext. 5052, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.