Pop-Up Magazine - The Sidewalk Issue


Ways to See Jellyfish

National Geographic photographer Anand Varma, longtime Radiolab co-host Robert Krulwich, composer Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, novelist Laura van den Berg (The Third Hotel, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears), actress Jena Malone (Inherent Vice, Stardust) and voiceover artist Michele Spitz take us on a sensory journey through the life of a jellyfish.

Audio Description Produced by Woman of Her Word &
Cliff Hahn Sound
Narrated by Michele Spitz



- Commentary with Robert Krulwich and Anand Varma
- New Fiction by Laura van den Berg, Read by Jenna Malone

Commentary with Robert Krulwich and Anand Varma

Robert Krulwich: All right, Anand. This is … something! Something … I can’t … what is this?

Anand Varma: This is a close-up of a moon jellyfish.

Robert: No, it isn’t. That doesn’t look like a jellyfish. No, it doesn’t look like a…. Where are we looking at it from?

Anand: We’re looking at the underside.

Robert: Oh, the underside. I see. So we’re looking into the veins of the underside, ahh! And where did you find…. Are you in the ocean shooting this, or where are you?

Anand: This is actually filmed all in my garage in Berkeley.

Robert: Your garage in Berkeley?! Did a bunch of jellyfish come knocking one day and say, “Can we move in?” What do you mean?

Anand: Well, actually, my friend Steve at the New England Aquarium shipped them to me in a box.

Robert: In a box.

Anand: Yep. FedEx. Overnight.

Robert: OK, so we are looking….These are kind of stunning. And so you have them in a tank and you shoot them with all kinds of fancy lighting, I assume. All right. Well, let’s do something interesting. Tell me about a mystery about this animal that you’re interested in. Start here.

Anand: What I wanted to show is how a jellyfish grows up, because it’s a surprisingly astounding story of transformation. What you’re looking at here is a pregnant mother moon jelly. All those little specks you see there are all embryonic jellyfish that she is holding in her arms, protecting them until they’re ready to swim free and make it on their own.

Robert: So there must be a thousand, two thousand, three thousand babies here.

Anand: It can be many, many thousands. And so you’re seeing where they’re emerging right next to her stomach, and they kind of slide down her arm in this little groove and join their brothers and sisters.

Robert: How small is this little thing? Is it, like, very small?

Anand: This is about a quarter of a millimeter. And right there, it’s just broken free of its mother’s arm. It’s tumbling through the open water. And what it needs to do is actually find a safe place to attach. So when they start their lives, they don’t actually spend all of it swimming through the open ocean. They actually have to stick themselves down to the surface. And so they do this little circular searching pattern. And when they find a spot, they’ll just twirl in place.

Robert: It looks like it’s twirling, so it must have…. It doesn’t look like it’s found anything. There’s nothing around it.

Anand: Yeah, once it’s found a good spot, though, it’ll transform just like this.

Robert: Woah, ho, ho, look at that! Are those, like, sticky things? Is it gonna try to stick to something?

Anand: Well, just wait and see. This is a mussel shell. To give you a sense of size, each of these is a few millimeters long and stuck down to this mussel shell, and those long extensions are actually sticky.

Robert: Oh, it’s an eating thing, those are mouths?

Anand: That’s right. That’s right.

Robert: So there’s a little something, a little critter that is not going to get eaten. Oh, no, it did get eaten. So how many little…. What are they eating, by the way?

Anand: These are all little baby brine shrimp.

Robert: Very stupid baby brine shrimp, if I may say so. I mean, they just walk right into the…. So how many brine shrimp will this mommy, this little critter eat?

Anand: I mean, we’re watching it consume dozens. I mean, they’re gluttonous little critters when they’re babies.

Robert: And now it’s doing something odd. It seems to be growing automobile tires or something like that. What are those?

Anand: Once it’s eaten enough and grown enough and feels ready, it’ll pinch itself into these segments. And what you’re seeing is all of these segments transform into separate, individual jellyfish.

Robert: Really? So that little guy that we saw searching around for a place to land has now fed and grown and is now propagating brothers and sisters on its own? This is like cloning?

Anand: That’s right.

Robert: Wow. Well, once you’re now free, free at last like this person … this little jellyfish we’re looking at now, what happens here?

Anand: Once it’s broken free, now it’s on its way to growing up, back to that momma jelly that we saw in the beginning.

Robert: See, this is beginning to look familiar, except it doesn’t have any of the stingers or the dangly things you associate with the jellies of this sort.

Anand: Yeah, it takes a couple of weeks to transform into that adult phase. And so you’re seeing it kind of grow this round bell and extend those arms from below.

Robert: Wow, so when you watch this whole genesis thing go on, and you watch it become more and more jellied, what’s your takeaway from all this?

Anand: You know, the reason I started this was this hunch that there’s more than meets your eye at first glance. And I think that’s really been the lesson of living with these jellyfish for the past few years. This creature that we think is so simple and the most basic of all animals, even this has so much surprising complexity and beauty.

Robert: Yeah, you certainly got it here. Well, thank you. This has been a treat.

New Fiction by Laura van den Berg, Read by Jenna Malone

The sky lures us to the beach with its cloudless electric blue, though the moment we unfold the pop-up tent and wedge the cooler in the sand, ink-colored clouds rush in, knocking heads above us. When the rain begins, so stinging it’s hard to believe the drops aren’t a solid, like marbles tumbling down from the sky, we tear open the nylon flap in the middle of the tent and dive inside. My sister bought this tent with her husband, back when they had the bandwidth to dream about such things like road trips across America. My niece, who is five, calls it “the caterpillar” because it’s long and green. The tent is big enough for four people, but these days it’s just the three of us.

My sister and I, the alleged adults, didn’t have a chance to secure the tent before the storm descended. A ripping wind attempts to levitate the caterpillar, but we sit on the edges and flash our teeth at my niece, who is asking nervous questions like: Are we going to blow into the ocean and drown?

There was no mention of a storm in the afternoon forecast because that’s how it is around here; all kinds of things happen without any apparent warning.

When my niece begins to cry, my sister starts to talk about the ocean. Have you ever noticed, she says, that you can see into the ocean but you can’t see through it? We shake our heads. My sister tells us that the ocean holds at least a million species of creature, maybe more; she tells us that the ocean is home to unfathomable things. Like jellyfish, which are more ancient than dinosaurs. Jellyfish don’t have hearts or brains, but still: imagine the knowledge.

I suspect a memory is surfacing: once, when we were children, our parents drove us down to Sugarloaf Key for a vacation; one morning my sister went snorkeling and drifted toward a swarm of moon jellies. She thought they looked like aliens. She thought they looked like angels. Mesmerized, she swam closer. She reached out and let the jellies brush against her arms. The next thing we knew she was screaming. Our father went thrashing out to retrieve her while our mother stayed on the shore, gripping me tightly by the wrist. In the water, our father hoisted my sister onto his shoulders, her goggles crooked on her face. He ferried her back to our rental and made a paste from baking soda to slather across her arms. By the afternoon she was seaworthy again.

The strangest thing, according to our father, was that when he reached my sister he found no evidence of jellyfish; the water was turquoise and clear. He would have wondered if my sister had invented the whole drama, as she sometimes did, if it weren’t for the crimson marks on her arms.

Out of this quartet my sister and I are the sole survivors. That’s how much of our childhood time has razed.

Sometimes, down here, I feel like I’m reenacting my own childhood through my niece, that she has opened a channel between the present and the deep past; I’m sure my sister must feel this way too, even though I’ve never asked her.

In the tent, my niece cries harder. I don’t think this talk of jellyfish is helping, I whisper to my sister. She’s always been a little short on what our mother called “walking-around sense.” I hold my niece’s soft, hot hand. I suspect she’s crying because her father no longer lives at home and her mother hasn’t been herself and her aunt, who appeared in the wake of this tumult, won’t be able to stay forever.

Some days, though, I like to pretend that I will be able to stay forever. That I have no life to return to. That this is the permanent shape of our family.

Finally the tent stops shaking. We open the flap and peer outside. The thunderclouds have flown away; the sky is a pale, churning blue. The entire earth appears dewy and quivering. What tenderness!

We crawl out of the tent one by one, like three little animals emerging from hibernation.

We stand in the glimmering sand and feel the sucking pull when the tide retreats. We’re not falling for it; this particular beach is notorious for its riptides after a storm. Above us clouds drift like massive brains. My sister lifts my niece onto her shoulders and this is what gets her to finally stop crying, proving once and for all that in times of crisis, words are largely useless.

We start to walk. My niece grips her mother’s hair like reins. On a pillow of seafoam, we find a coral sea star that’s missing a leg.

Is that a jellyfish? my niece asks.

On the drive home, she falls asleep in the backseat. I wonder how much will stay with her, from this period of time. Up front we roll the windows down, then shake the sand from our hair. At a red light, my sister leans over and presses her palm to my forehead, the way our mother used to do when she wanted to check us for fever. The light changes; her hand falls away. What was that about? I ask her, and she just says, Remembering.