In the last two weeks, I’ve gone to Cinque Terre and Malta. In both locations, I spent hours on the beach. I got tan, read books, listened to about a dozen podcasts, and generally enjoyed life. But I also saw these amazing animals washed up on the beach and floating in the water. A little googling and I have a new favorite aquatic acquaintance. Everyone, let me introduce you to Velella velella.
Common names include “by-the-wind-sailor” and “purple sail,” but mostly these guys are called simply “velella.” They are in the phylum Cnidaria, class Hydrozoa, and happen to be the only organism in the family Velella.
When I first saw them, I honestly thought they were baby mussels, washed ashore because they never found a rock to stick to. But in fact, these little guys spend their entire lives at the water-air interface, where their stiff sails let them be pushed around by the wind and their tentacles below the surface allow them to catch plankton for nutrients. Their sails also make for a pretty cool photo as a wave gets stuck washing over them…
Every so often, when the wind and water currents are just right (or wrong, I suppose), massive colonies of velella are washed up on shore, and this is what I saw over the past two weeks in Italy and Malta.
Velella is a particularly fascinating species, which I have discovered in the last hour reading about them. It is still debated whether each velella is just one organism, or a number of organisms connected to each other, although the scientific community is coming to a consensus that each velella is a single organism.
There are in fact two types of velella; the sails sometimes are oriented left-to-right, and sometimes right-to-left. Depending on the direction of the sail, the velella colonies will end up stranded on different sides of the ocean. Really, though, they’re just super cool.