Getting to know jellyfish

"Jellyfish have been around for a very long time. But only recently have their numbers started to grow,” says Dr. Dror Angel, a marine ecologist who does research and teaches at the University of Hai

AT LEAST eight types of Jellyfish populate Israeli waters, most of which don’t sting (photo credit: ZAFRIR KUPLIK)
AT LEAST eight types of Jellyfish populate Israeli waters, most of which don’t sting
(photo credit: ZAFRIR KUPLIK)
"Jellyfish have been around for a very long time. But only recently have their numbers started to grow,” says Dr. Dror Angel, a marine ecologist who does research and teaches at the University of Haifa. He also operates the website “These days, we can see jellyfish in the sea off the coast from Ashkelon all the way up to Rosh Hanikra. People are afraid of them, as if they were sharks. One of our goals is to educate people and replace this negative image with a more positive one.”
More than one million users have browsed on Angel’s website to check if there were jellyfish in the sea before deciding whether to go the beach or stay home. “Our site offers real-time information, just like Waze,” he says with a smile. “Our community of users is constantly updating the site, so we can always know which beaches are currently inundated with jellyfish. People think they are actively being stung, but actually the jellyfish are completely passive. When people come in contact with their tentacles, which are covered with stinging cells, they get stung, even though the jellyfish are not trying to hurt us on purpose. My aim is to improve the jellyfish’s image by offering information.
“For example, there are at least eight or nine types of jellyfish in Israeli waters, most of which don’t sting. Not many people know that. The more people learn about jellyfish, the less they’ll be scared. Jellyfish are invertebrates that reach Israel around June-July every year. Sometimes they stay for a few weeks, but sometimes they hang around for months. We researchers are curious to figure out what leads to these fluctuations from year to year. In addition, sometimes people report that they’ve been stung, but don’t see any jellyfish, so we assume that there are other causes for this burning sensation. But budgets are tight, so we’ve not advanced too much in this area.”
Angel admits that he personally has a great affinity for jellyfish. “I find them fascinating,” he says with a shy smile. “Jellyfish can also be found in other parts of the world, such as Spain, Italy, China, Japan and the US. There are swarms of jellyfish all over the world. Many people find themselves feeling hypnotized as they gaze at jellyfish for hours in aquariums.”
He describes the website as citizen science. “We created the site in 2011 as a way of interacting with the public so we could understand exactly when and where the jellyfish appear. We have hundreds of beachgoers reporting sightings for us. For example, if you look at the site right now, you’ll see that some people have just been stung in the sea near Kiryat Haim. But I also spoke with someone yesterday who said they didn’t see any jellyfish in the water there. In other words, they move in and out of areas quickly. We’re always trying to bring in more people to join our website.”
Other than reports on your site from beachgoers, do you have any other indicators regarding the location of jellyfish?
“We’re currently working on a technological mechanism that involves satellites and drones, but we’re still in the beta testing stage.”
Is it dangerous for kids to play with jellyfish that have washed up on the shore?
“For the most part these jellyfish are already dead, but their stinging cells are still active, so you shouldn’t touch them.”
What’s the most efficient way to treat a jellyfish sting?
“There are many varying opinions, but vinegar is still the recommended treatment. It’s possible that tap water might actually intensify the burning sensation.”
PROF. YAEL Dubowski of the Technion Center of Excellence in Exposure Science and Environmental Health has no direct connection with jellyfish, “except for the fact that I just don’t like them,” she says with a smirk.
Dubowski has added sightings many times to the website. “I row with the Acre Kayak Club and twice a week we send Dror an updated list of our sightings. I hate getting stung. We row out about five or six kilometers, and knowing that there are jellyfish makes me want to get into the water as little as possible.”
But now that you know more about them, hasn’t this improved your attitude?
“Now that Dror came over to our club to teach us lots of interesting tidbits about jellyfish, I don’t feel as much antipathy towards them.”
“FOR ME, researching jellyfish is a hobby and an obsession,” says Dr. Dor Edelist of the University of Haifa Maritime Studies Department and Angel’s partner in managing the website. “I did not like jellyfish when I was a kid. When I was working on my doctorate, I was frustrated that we didn’t have a map of Israel’s beaches that would help us track the jellyfish.”
Edelist also created a Facebook Group in 2014 called Meduzot Ba’am (“Jellyfish Ltd.”), which currently numbers 1,600 members. “People discuss how to get rid of the jellyfish and share what uses they might have, like can you eat them?” he says. “People also post pictures of jellyfish with questions and other users respond before I even get a chance to, which is just so great.”
In other words, people are becoming more educated about jellyfish.
“Most people still focus on the negative aspects, but on our website we offer information that shows how jellyfish are an important part of the ecosystem, and also on how to deal with stings.”
Can stings be prevented?
“If you check our website, you can see where the most recent sightings were. You can wear a wetsuit or suit that prevents stings. You can also use cream that protects against stings. Or you can just go to the beach as usual and not worry about anything. It’s not the end of the world if you get stung – nothing bad can come of it, except for a little stinging for a few minutes.”
“I LOVE jellyfish,” says Dr. Zafrir Kuplik, a jellyfish expert from Tel Aviv University. “They’re very photogenic and they have an interesting life cycle. I raise jellyfish in my lab and I find them fascinating. I love watching them out in the sea, in nature. If you wear a wetsuit, you won’t get stung. You can swim right up next to them.”
Are there types of jellyfish whose stings are fatal?
“Yes. Stings from box jellyfish can be fatal. But these kinds don’t come near the Middle East. They can only be found in Australia and the Pacific Ocean.”
What’s the best way to make people feel more positive about jellyfish?
“I think by showing how beautiful they are in aquariums. That way people can learn about them and realize that they’re not really dangerous at all.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.