Moon Bay: A New Florida Aquarium Touch Experience


Moon Bay: A New Florida Aquarium Touch Experience

Ocean jellies (more commonly known as jellyfish) are one of the last creatures you might think of touching, but The Florida Aquarium is about to introduce a new exhibit that gives guests an up-close and interactive experience with the opening of Moon Bay this World Oceans Day (June 8th). 


To most, the Aquarium’s new moon jelly touch experience may sound scary, but rest assured the soon-to-open exhibit won’t pose a risk to visitors or, for that matter, jellies. Instead, it will allow a close encounter with a hypnotically graceful ocean creature with surprising survival skills. The touch experience in the first-floor lobby will be populated by a type of moon jelly that does not sting, even though the almost identical looking Florida moon jelly does.


Libby Nickels, an Aquarium senior biologist, explained the difference: “The moon jelly we display are cold water jellies, which don’t sting… Warm water jellies are the ones that sting.”


The almost 2,000-gallon habitat finishing construction will be visually arresting.  Nickels said the display will have two separate pools where the jellies can be touched. The pools will come together at a three-foot acrylic sphere, where the alien-looking, virtually transparent invertebrates can be observed. Nickels said attendants and signage will ensure the animals are treated gently, with only a two-finger touch, the same technique that works so well at the Aquarium’s second-floor stingray touch pool. The Aquarium also maintains a stingray touch experience at Tampa Electric's Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach, and staff members are experts at protecting people and animals in such encounters.


Nickels said despite the moon jelly’s delicate appearance, “they are a lot more durable than people think. They feel like a wet mushroom.” The exhibit will help visitors better appreciate a fascinating, and deceptive, marine species. It appears utterly helpless.


As Nickels acknowledged, “The jelly has no brain, no real nervous system. It reacts to stimuli such as light and temperatures.  Waves and wind determine where it goes.” It consists mostly of water. The ocean jelly has survived at least 500 million years and has outlived the dinosaurs. Not bad for a brainless, gooey glob.

Its success is due to some remarkable survival attributes. For instance, the moon jelly can survive in waters of low-dissolved oxygen that most creatures cannot endure. Beyond tolerate the lack of oxygen, the moon jelly, Nickels said, “can shrink when food is scarce and then grow when food is available again.”


This is not a matter of simply losing weight; it reduces its size as if a six-foot human could become five-feet during a famine.The moon jelly’s two-stage reproduction cycle also is incredibly efficient. Nickels detailed that “through the release of eggs and sperms, the adults create polyps, which can clone themselves or make babies. The polyps attach themselves to a hard surface.  A single polyp can create a dozen new animals.”


The polyp can sense when conditions are optimum to produce the baby jellies.  But when water quality or the weather are hazardous, a polyp, which can live for years, will clone itself, creating more polyps that will release babies when the time is appropriate.


With this flexible reproduction cycle, the jellies can repopulate even if a catastrophe devastates its numbers. A jelly, in contrast to the polyp, lives only about a year in the wild, though longer under the Aquarium’s care. The Florida Aquarium utilizes the jellies’ reproduction cycle, periodically modifying water temperature and other conditions, so plenty of baby jellyfish are born. The practice ensures no jellies are ever taken from the wild. The Florida Aquarium also provides the animals for exhibit at other licensed facilities. Nickels strongly advised against trying to keep the moon or other jellies in a home aquarium, which is becoming increasingly popular. She understands the appeal.


“They are beautiful, but they won’t make a good take-home pet. It requires a specialized home. The jellies don’t want to bump into things. They can grow to the size of a dinner plate, which is hardly good for a desktop tank.”


And, of course, warm water jellies sting. Nickels did point out that not everyone is affected by jelly toxins.  Alas, I know from several memorably painful encounters I am not among the fortunate.  She also noted they can release stinging cells in the water; you don’t necessarily have to touch the animal to feel the sensation. For treatment, she advises immersing the sting in vinegar or in the hottest water you can stand. The Aquarium’s moon jellies will be fed twice a day with “brine shrimp, the sea monkeys you used to be able to order in the back of a magazine.” The once popular “sea monkey” actually is a hybrid crustacean developed in the 1950s and marketed as “Instant Life.” It makes an instant meal for the jellies.


In the wild, the moon jellies eat plankton, small krill and tiny creatures that drift in its path. Larger, venomous jellies have a heartier diet. The Portuguese man of war and sea nettles, with their long, toxic tentacles, can kill and eat much larger prey, including fish. Nickels say these jellies need the toxin to “immobilize the prey because it takes a long time to digest.” Understandably, not many animals feed on the slight of ocean jellies, which don’t exactly offer a full-course meal. Sea turtles and sunfish, though, gulp them down. Also, some people eat dried jellies, which some tout as a health food.


The more significant threat to ocean jellies, Nickels said, is wind, tides, and weather.

 “The jellies can't move; it can pulse a little to keep upright, but has no sense of locomotion. Longevity depends upon what it encounters. Storms, hurricanes, and shore rocks can tear them apart.”


That may make them seem helpless and fragile.  But remember when you visit the touch pool, which opens on June 8, 2019, the flimsy-looking critter inside has proven through the eons to be tougher than Tyrannosaurus Rex. 




Former Opinion Editor, The Tampa Tribune







Senior Biologist | The Florida Aquarium




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