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Invasion of the jelly monsters

31 July 2016 - 02:00 By Bobby Jordan

Jellyfish expert Krish Lewis tells Bobby Jordan why the stinging blobs deserve respect It is tempting to draw comparisons between Krish Lewis and a Benguela jellyfish. Both are at the top of their game, the one an up-and-coming scientist at Cape Town's Two Oceans Aquarium, the other the scourge of the south Atlantic with an estimated biomass of 3.6trillion tons and growing fast. Both are good looking, in a lanky, laid-back sort of way, Lewis in jeans and hipster cap, the jellyfish in a translucent gelatinous body suit that is 96% water.One with the world at his feet, the other strangling it in the venomous grip of hungry tentacles able to induce cardiac arrest in seconds. But that's where the comparison comes unstuck, because in almost every other respect Lewis and his jellies are worlds apart.story_article_left1Unlike the sea creatures, Lewis has a brain and a heart, both gainfully employed in a poky "jelly lab" deep in the bowels of the Waterfront aquarium. Here you will find him surrounded by water-pipes, air tubes, tanks gurgling with jellies in various stages of agitation, and a dense clutter of plumbing paraphernalia that makes up the invisible underbelly of this three-story, five-star fish hotel.It's a dank, claustrophobic cellar of a workspace unbefitting Lewis's mysterious preoccupation: breeding jellies. But look closer and you see that this is no random clutter. Strategically placed fans and lights keep the jellies warm and snug. On the notice board are instructions for a jellyfish "smoothie": anchovies, shrimp, krill, white mussel and prawn tail. In the air linger snippets of peculiar deep ocean conversation: "In the cupboard with the tentacles - you'll find it there," says Lewis. Lewis - the father of jellies, progenitor of a jelly family, lord and commander of jelly dynasties. Sort of."I love them," he says. "They are very, very mysterious animals. At the moment we still have more questions than answers."It is this paucity of jellyfish knowledge that largely explains how a Paarl laaitie who grew up with cats, dogs and parakeets comes to be stooped over a glass bowl filled with spiralling brown blobs - one-day-old moon jellies. The "jelly guy" always knew he wanted to study animals, preferably at the University of the Western Cape due to an enticing biodiversity and conservation biology degree on offer there. For his honours he worked on a bio-control for malaria, using killifish. From there it was a just a short drop down the food chain to jellies."There is a big gap in the knowledge around jellies," says Lewis. He is plugging that gap by researching jellyfish polyps, teeny-tiny sessile jellyfish producing specks that attach themselves to just about anything - typically the seabed - before spawning even more polyps. "Look in there, you'll see them everywhere." Lewis points to a braille of brown speckles. "I scrubbed this tank just the other day."Like a polyp flowering into a blue blubber jelly in full bloom, Lewis's scientific career took off when he joined the Two Oceans Aquarium team earlier this year to take charge of their new jelly exhibition. Not only is he now paid to grow jellies, he can continue his research while spreading the gospel of jelly to wide-eyed visitors, who see in his crystal-clear tanks a vision of eternity.full_story_image_hleft1Lewis looks more like a skateboard punk rocker than a scientist. Partly it's the wry smile and the bracelets and the cool garb. On his belt sits a jangle of keys and a walkie-talkie named KR!SH. Under different circumstances one suspects he would be dishing out high fives as he brushes past friendly colleagues in the maze of passageways hidden from public view.One also suspects Lewis has found his niche in a place where research is hip and happening and easily digestible thanks to a menagerie of Nemo-esque ambassadors. The aquarium is a vital interface between science and the public imagination, where often obscure concepts like biodiversity translate into awe and wonder.It's this unspoken ambition that underpins Lewis's glib narrative of jelly factoids and superlatives. He speaks of jellies the same way some might speak of God or art. "We consider it to be immortal," says Lewis of a jellyfish polyp, which has the ability to lie dormant for years and can clone itself at will. "Technically it never dies off, and even if it did there is its clone."And as is the way of all things awesome, the jelly has a shadow side that Lewis concedes partly explains his fascination: jellies seem virtually indestructible.block_quotes_start Jelly venom short circuits a prey's cells so that they can't function, it can stop the prey's heart block_quotes_endThey are also spreading, in dizzying numbers, across the world's oceans, seemingly at the expense of fish species and other jelly-eating animals such as turtles. Trawl nets that once groaned with pelagic hake, now haul in great jelly colonies by the ton. Offshore mining pumps choke with jellies instead of mineral-rich deposits, and even Koeberg's water inlet pipes have been threatened by jelly blooms.Prompted by such observations scientists sampled the West Coast fishing grounds, and confirmed an alarming jelly ascendancy: for every 3.2million tons of fin fish, there were an estimated 12.6million tons of jellies. Similar statistics have been recorded elsewhere as the jelly tide advances, possibly buoyed by man-made climate change or depleted fish stocks.And it's not just one kind of problem-causing jelly we're talking about: blue-blubber jellies, Benguela jellies, moon jellies, night light jellies, walnut jellies and groups of jellies that eat other jellies (jellyvorous jellies) - the list trails away into the biological abyss. There are more than 2,000 jelly species, evolved over 650million years.story_article_right2A guided tour of Lewis's innocuous-looking tanks sounds like a horror script, particularly when you consider the jelly's uber-efficient dietary habits. "When pulsating, they are eating at the same time," he says as we hover above some hatchlings."Jelly venom short circuits a prey's cells so that they can't function. It can stop the prey's heart in a contracted state. The stings are very important because by the time the food gets to the jelly's gut the digestion has already begun." Nice.Even more worrying is the box jelly, which can distinguish between shapes and is able swim against the current - just in case you thought you could paddle away from this menace. "These jellies actively hunt," says Lewis.But the jelly guy is not worried about global annihilation just yet. He sees jellies as a vital ecological indicator, an aid to human health rather than a threat to our existence. His infectious enthusiasm for all things jelly accompanies us on a tour of his jelly exhibits, including a new, hugely popular one in the Atlantic Ocean gallery where wall-to-wall mirrors create an illusion of jelly infinity."These are fantastic animals to observe, but they need to be treated with respect because they can cause damage," says Lewis, his face bathed in blue luminescence from the moon jelly tank.Lewis the proud jelly dad, one hand resting on the glass.Later we meet him near the aquarium front entrance, or part of him, his legs protruding from the top casing of his show-stopper jelly tank, home to four Benguela beauties. Lewis is hand-feeding them with an eye-dropper. "Smoothie time," he says, squeezing out a helping.Like an emissary from the distant future, or the past, a jelly brushes against his fingers, thinking nothing.sub_head_start Many staff are wet behind the ears, but they have to be sub_head_endIt looks like a rooftop swimming pool, until you see the tentacles. And the yellow-belly rock cod looking for a nibble. Oh and here comes a stingray, make that two stingrays, cruising past the wet-suited legs of volunteer Talitha Noble who is hand-feeding calamari to Bob the turtle, the aquarium's famously ticklish reptile. "He really is ticklish," Noble says, giving Bob's shell a scratch. "Look, there goes his flipper."Welcome to the roof of Cape Town's Two Oceans Aquarium.The small "medical pool" where Noble dishes out lunch is attached to the aquarium's giant new "ocean" exhibit, home to several crowd-pleasing species including yellowfin tuna and a giant guitarfish. Directly below us is a throng of wide-eyed children and parents. Toddlers in prams or clutching their mother's skirts fall silent as peculiar species loop past, eye-to-eye."This is the nicest part of my day," says Noble, who spends most of her time with turtle hatchlings in the quarantine section. "We have 76 hatchlings and 10 juveniles. There's a lot of feeding and cleaning - that takes up most of my time."mini_story_image_vleft2Noble and her colleagues spend much of their time backstage on the aquarium roof, ensuring a good show in the waters below. Here are random fish heads and turtle tanks, strange outcrops of water pipes, and wetsuits drying in the sun. A short ramp leads to a second pool with turbid water and ... seaweed? It's the top of the kelp forest exhibit, a hugely popular attraction down below, on top as unremarkable as a water treatment pond.Veteran aquarist Xolela Mpetsheni, manager of both the kelp forest and ocean exhibits, is gearing up for a feeding dive. His day typically starts with an external tank inspection at around 7am. Later he dives into the tank for a proper inspection. "I check the fish behaviour, to check that there are no sick fish and all that stuff. I check behind the rocks to make sure there are no fish lying down or doing funny things," he says. "The best part is interacting with the animals. I like the rays and the turtles."The aquarium employs 87 people, including burly support staff who must wrestle with heavy pipes and filters, front-of-house clerks, designers, security personnel and communications experts. There is an aquarium school equipped with table-top touch pools stocked with sea-anemones and starfish."We try and do as much hands-on learning as possible," says Xavier Zylstra, a senior teacher at the environmental education centre. "A lot of the animals here are 'look only', but our hardier animals get taken out and put in special containers so that the children can touch them."One of the less appetising jobs falls to volunteers: preparing fish food in a frosty kitchen. Shoulder-to-shoulder the youngsters from around the world slice up tentacles, fish heads and fish tails, later to be mushed together and fed to hungry mouths and beaks. It's smelly work, but somebody has to do it and there's no escaping the pecking order, even at an aquarium. Especially at an aquarium."It all looks calm, but that can change in half a second," says Renée Leeuwner, assistant communications and sustainability manager. Even a slight change in temperature in one of the tanks could spell disaster for any number of species, which means technical staff have to be on permanent alert for malfunctioning equipment. Says Leeuwner: "The aquarium never sleeps."..

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