Life on the Surface

A community of creatures living where the ocean meets the air teaches Rebecca Heisman to look deeper.    

Published June 24, 2015

Shore Lines is a place for readers to recount an experience of personal significance that helped them connect with one small stretch of the world’s vast and varied coast.

After months of leading field trips for middle school science classes on Jekyll Island, Georgia, I naively thought that its beaches held no more real surprises for me—until I found a palm-sized blue disc with a stiff flap on top, washed up on the sand.

At first I took it for a scrap of plastic trash, but back at the nature center, my boss gave me its name: Velella velella, commonly called the “by-the-wind sailor.” She told me it was a jellyfish relative that spends its life floating on the ocean’s surface. Dangling partly below the water, Velella uses the flap on its back as a sail for traveling the world’s warm and temperate waters. Relying completely on the wind for movement and direction, prevailing wind currents often drive massive drifts of the animals in the same direction, washing them ashore in large numbers. Finding one alone was an anomaly.

I felt like a mole that had lived its entire life underground, suddenly discovering the existence of birds. Living life on the boundary between sea and air was a whole new way of being that I had never imagined. And Velella was just one of many such animals, most of them blue and white, living both above and below the ocean’s surface. I soon fell down a research hole, reading about Janthina snails building themselves rafts of bubbles on which they float, and predatory Glaucus sea slugs swallowing air bubbles to hang upside down in the water’s surface tension.

It’s been five years now, but that feeling of discovering a new and alien world in Velella and its companions has stuck with me. I know better now than to think that I’ve seen it all. Although I no longer live by the ocean, every person and every place is an ocean full of its own strange wonders, and every time I look up at the night sky or find a weird bug in my garden or learn something new about someone I’ve known for years, I’m an explorer. Velella velella may live on the surface, but as it turned out, my encounter with it was a reminder to always look a little deeper.