The Sea Wasps: Chironex fleckeri

by Marija Smits

Saltwater rich in iodine calls to us; it sings to our aeons-old nervous system. It speaks to our cells: it is time. It is time.

We see all and sense all.

Now, it is dark.

We move rapidly through the ocean, unlike the others of our kind, our translucent bells pulsating: contract, relax, contract, relax. A hypnotic kind of locomotion this, and one which belies our dangerous nature. Our prey has little chance of surviving our tentacles; we are not passive in our feeding, like the others, our cousins. We are canny, we do not trust to the vagaries of the tide, that mistress of the others, the passive ones. We seek out our food: worms, shrimps and prawns, and paralyse them with our venom. Our oral arms draw the creatures into our mouth-anus, the entrance — and exit — to our gut. They are then digested, their flesh broken down into smaller and smaller fragments until they are but molecules. Necessary fuel for our cells.

What is it that we fear in the ocean? There is almost nothing that we fear. Green turtles, crabs and the silver and coloured fish — butterfish, rabbitfish, batfish — are our only predators, seemingly immune to our poison which we use to defend ourselves, lashing out to disable, striking to kill. Although there is also the invisible threat: the malevolent force — wrath of Poseidon? Cyclone? Storm? — that comes from nowhere and leaves us stranded in our thousands on the shore.

It was then, when we were beached, prone, and barely alive, that the inquisitive apes poked us with their sticks, although those that were more knowledgeable (and less curious) ran from us, aware that our tentacles were still deadly, despite our deaths. We were left to drown in the thin air beneath a cerulean sky and reeling gulls.

Still. The light levels begin to increase. We migrate.

Contract, relax, contract, relax.

It is time. It is time.

It is time to mate, to reproduce; the iodine promises success to our offspring, our polyps. In these waters they will change and grow into adults, like us.

These waters are perfect, there is enough light, enough food, enough oxygen, enough iodine. The temperature is just right too, and the thinking apes have left enough debris in the waters for our polyps to cling to; so it is here that we will congregate and bloom. A stalk of us enters the waters and then another and another. The stalks become a swarm, and then a bloom, for we are here to mate. This is no chance meeting of medusae, the currents flinging us into each other. No, there is purpose here.

The increasing light levels are a signal to spawn; the males release their sperm, the females release their eggs, and the waters become thick with gametes that float into each other, touch, fuse, join, fertilise. The eggs, when fertilized, become larvae and sink to the seabed, which is littered with debris. We do not know why, but the shore-dwelling apes, the ones with language and tools, aid our proliferation; for when they are not poking us with sticks, or watching us from above the water in their vessels, they are building us great reefs for our polyps. Made of strange materials, these reefs sometimes house fish for us to feed on. They have made the waters warmer too, the water more nutrient-rich, oxygen-thin. They kill off our predators. We do not know why they do this, but it matters not. These apes they come, they go. Yet we go on.

Contract, relax, contract, relax.

Our larvae, attached to a firm structure, will become polyps; these will then grow and strobilate, and produce more free-swimming cube-shaped medusae, like us. We will be dead by then, for we do not have long to live, but it matters not. Today, while it is light, we bloom and spawn; today we witness the spectacle of reproduction.

Some of our kind have mastered immortality; some, like the tiny Turriptosis, when hurt, or ill, or simply close to death, are able to revert into polyps. From adult to offspring, then offspring to adult, the process can go on forever. We practise a different kind of immortality.

We see all, we sense all. The light levels are dropping. It is time to stop spawning. The bloom begins to break up into stalks of sea wasps.

Contract, relax, contract, relax; we move apart, into the darkening waters.

The last of the fertilised eggs float downwards. They are changing already; cells are multiplying, proliferating, DNA is being replicated. We move through the water, not much more than water ourselves, and senesce. By the time the light levels increase again, some of us will have died. Yet it matters not, for our offspring will survive. We will endure.

Contract, relax, contract, relax.

Marija Smits is the pen-name of Dr Teika Bellamy, a mother-of-two, ex-scientist and editor whose art and writing has appeared in a variety of publications. When she’s not busy with her children she’s running the indie press, Mother’s Milk Books. ‘Teika’ means ‘fairy tale’ in Latvian.