Learning to love jellyfish at aquarium

BEAUTIFUL BLOBS

February 29, 1996|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

You usually waste no time running away from them. No one ever considers running to them.

Jellyfish, those stinging creatures that are avoided at all costs, now will have their own exhibit at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Staffers are hoping the public will run to see them.

"Jellies: Phantoms of the Deep" opens Saturday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony by Frances Hughes Glendening, wife of the governor, and it will remain at the aquarium for two years.

"Jellyfish are just amazing animals," says Mark Donovan, senior director of exhibits and design.

"People have an image of them, especially in this region, such as you can't go swimming because of the jellyfish. But underwater, they are just beautiful. These animals are so captivating to watch."

The phrase made famous by Muhammad Ali, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," did not refer to jellyfish, but the phrase sums up the knowledge that most people have of them, Mr. Donovan says.

"After seeing a dozen mesmerizing displays, viewers will never again dismiss jellyfish as merely stinging nuisances in the Chesapeake Bay," he says.

The 2,700-gallon exhibit includes 11 tanks ranging in size from 50 to 450 gallons. The exhibit will showcase seven species of jellyfish in a 1,600-square-foot area. That area will be "pulsating, glowing and shimmering in special-effects lighting," Mr. Donovan says.

"This was especially fun for the design team," he says. "We've used lighting like in a theater. It will be like entering an entire water world."

The aquarium commissioned new music specifically for the exhibit, which is sponsored by NationsBank, and there will be computer screens and other educational information in the aquarium's Discovery Center.

Visitors will learn that not every fish they think is a jellyfish actually is.

For instance, some animals familiarly called jellyfish, like the Portuguese man-of-war, are not true jellyfish.

The exhibit will include East and West Coast sea nettles, known to swimmers because they sting; lion's mane jellies, which can have tentacles longer than a blue whale; moon jellies; plankton-feeding elegant jellies; small umbrella jellyfish; and lacy and delicate upside-down jellyfish.

Some species of jellyfish cannot be exhibited because of their size, danger or fragility, says Bruce Hecker, curator of fishes and life support. But visitors will be able to look at these jellyfish via video "portholes."

It was challenging setting up a jellyfish exhibit, Mr. Hecker says.

"Tanks must have specially designed water circulation to prevent the fragile animals from entering the life support system and to provide for the suspension of food in the water column," he says.

The food must be suspended because jellyfish feed on various kinds of plankton, which are tiny organisms in the water. Baby brine shrimp have been raised for some of the species at the aquarium.

The moon jellies' tank was the greatest challenge.

"The overhead deck of the moon jellies appears almost as a skylight," the curator says. A deck had to be designed -- out of sight and above the ceiling -- from which aquarists can reach the tank to service it.

"But, in some ways, they are easier to maintain than fish," he says.

"Although we do maintain a high water quality, they will tolerate a higher level of waste."

The exhibit was shipped in from the New England Aquarium in Boston and then redesigned and expanded by the Baltimore aquarium's staff.

The staff at the New England Aquarium is also helping to breed jellyfish to replace some of the short-lived species in the exhibit.

"This is a blockbuster," Mr. Donovan says.

Know your jellyfish

The following are just some of the interesting facts about the "fish" people love to avoid at the beach:

* Jellyfish are more than 95 percent water. They have no heart, brain, bones or real eyes. Nerve cells help them move and react to food or danger. Sensors let them know whether they are heading up or down, into the light or away from it.

*Jellyfish, despite the name, are not fish. They are invertebrates related to anemones and corals.

* Jellyfish drift with ocean currents, using a pulsating, jet-propulsion motion to move vertically.

* The tentacles (and sometimes other parts) of jellyfish have stinging cells; barb-like structures in the stinging cells paralyze their prey.

* Many jellyfish are almost transparent.

* When food is scarce, they can shrink in size, thus requiring less food.

* Jellyfish predate dinosaurs and existed before the first sharks on the planet. They are at least 650 million years old.

THE FACTS

What: "Jellies: Phantoms of the Deep"

Where: National Aquarium in Baltimore, 501 E. Pratt St.

When: Begins Saturday.

Admission: Regular aquarium admission is $11.50 for adults, $9.50 for seniors and $7.50 for children ages 3 to 11. Children under 3 admitted free.

Call: (410) 576-3800

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