Thursday, September 25, 2014


By wind, and by sea
flotillas of Velella velella set sail
& the skin of the ocean is their home.
Offshore pelagic dreams will beach them
on distant shores where people will puzzle
over their cobalt mantles and glassine sails.
They will make odd metaphors and similes,
reducing them to jellyfish—or man-of-wars,
not realizing that their strange uniqueness
makes these small by-the-wind-sailors 
a singularity in the animal kingdom
that defies simple classification.
& they'll set sail into the void 
to lodge in the flotsam 
of the mind.

By-the wind-sailror, purple sail, sea-raft, little-sail, or the euphonious Valella valella —Wiki

This is from a Facebook rant, I fought ignorance, lost the battle, but won a poem.

Way back when, I took biology classes at College of Marin, we'd go out to the marine station in Bolinas and hang out—and when the Vellela velella were blown ashore, it was class time! My biology teacher waxed poetic about Velella velella's uniqueness and that they have no close relatives. They are a singularity. Aka By-the-wind-sailors, velella are hydrozoans, or rather, a hydroid polyp with only one species in the entire genus. They're very special and are vaguely jellyfish-like. Sort of...but that doesn't make them jellyfish. Same phylum, and class, that's about all. 

Velella velella family tree

Phylum: Cnidaria
Subphylum: Medusozoa
Class: Hydrozoa
Order: Anthomedusae
Family: Porpitidae
Genus: Velella
Species: V. velella

Jellyfish family tree
Portuguese Man o War

Phylum: Cnidaria
Class: Hydrozoa
Order: Siphonophorae
Family: Physaliidae
Genus: Physalia
Species: P. physalis

Of course everybody on the Facebook post wanted to take the easy way out and just label the creatures as jellyfish. I guess it's too hard for some folks to say Velella velella. They float on top of the water. They can't submerge like jellyfish. The Greek name for jellyfish is cuplike. Velella velella are not cuplike at all. Sure, they're gelatinous on the underside but so are slugs, tunicates, and slime mold, as well as grape jelly sandwiches. Shall we call all grape jelly sandwiches jellyfish because they vaguely resembles jellyfish? Or call screws nails because they're similar in shape? Agh!

It was a losing battle. 

A more accurate write-up than Wiki, which has old, outdated info, is Velella velella By-the-wind sailor "biologist have examined the Velella as a single hydroid... The most striking aspect of the Velella velella is the direction of its sail, beacause it represents the direction the Velella is going and eventually to what shore it will arrive."

In “By the Wind” Sailors: Seasonal Velella beaching mystery solved, my old co-worker in the schools, Michael Ellis wrote:" It averages two inches across its flattened oval body and has a prominent sail. This flexible, triangular projection catches the wind and can move the animal quickly along the water even in a gentle zephyr. It is this remarkable ability that inspired early mariners to christen it the “By-the-wind Sailor.”

Velella is in the same phylum as anemones, corals, jellyfish and hydroids. It was once thought to be a colony of animals similar to the infamous Portuguese Man-of-War, but careful research has shown that it is a complicated individual rather than an assemblage of animals."


By wind, and by sea they sail
the skin of the ocean is their home
Pelagic dreams drift to shore
where people puzzle over them
making poor metaphors
calling them jellies, not realizing
their uniqueness as they sail into the void.

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