Jellyfish Encounters in California
By Mike Bartick
Jellyfish are found in every ocean in the world. Also called a medusa in its adult stage, they can vary in colour and size, from transculent to opaque black or patterned like the Purple Striped jellyfish and from minuscule to a massive 450 pounds
Jellyfish fish are free swimming cnidarians, believed to have existed for 650 million years; before the first dinosaurs even hatched. Although their bodies look simple and unsophisticated, jellyfish structures are probably much more complex. With no life-sustaining organs as the heart, brain and blood, these drifters have survived some of the harshest conditions that Mother Nature has dished up. Without eyes, and with only chemosensory pits, their vision is limited to discerning light from dark. Nevertheless these beautiful creatures are frighteningly delicate - their bodies are comprised mainly of water and if removed from their aquatic home, they will undoubtedly collapse and die.
The body of these amazing invertebrates is made up of three major body
1) The muscular bell or the umbrella-shaped top that is sometimes very
colorful as is the case with the Purple Striped Jellyfish.
2) The tentacles, which can extend and contract. The tentacles float out into the water column and possess spring-loaded nematocysts proteins that sting anything that may come into contact with them
3) Oral arms that enable the creature to begin the digestive process and supply food energy by consuming its prey. The digestive process is simple and each jelly has a hidden mouth under the bell called the gastrovascular cavity where prey is eventually consumed.
Jellyfish are totally symmetrical with no left or right side, which puts them
into a unique class all to themselves. All animals on earth have sides - birds, turtles, fish and even reptiles, but not jellyfish.
Jellies belong to the phylum cnidarian. Again, this group of animals are all radially symmetrical and they include corals, hydras, sea anemones and jellyfish.
There are approximately 200 true jellies that have been documented so far, including the Sea Nettle, Moon Jelly, Lion's Mane, Purple Striped and many
more. They ambulate through the water by pulsing and jetting water with its muscular bell. When disturbed they may hyper-activate and propel themselves away or just stop all movement.
There's an interesting article, photos and labelled graphics on jellyfish here.
Over the past few years I have had several opportunities to photograph a variety of different jellyfish. Most recently in California, Sea Nettles have been seen in the upper Channel Islands as well as the Point Loma kelp beds. Fried Egg Jellies have also been seen in both inshore areas and pelagic settings as we saw while blue water diving.
In any case jellyfish make for some spectacular and dramatic subjects to
photograph. With a few simple techniques striking photos can be captured with
compact cameras and dSLRs alike. Lighting is essential with any photo and lighting jellies just right can really make them pop with rich color and dimension.
First let's discuss equipment: external strobes are important but handheld
flashlights can also help you achieve to capture the shots you want. Keep in
mind that many of the best jellyfish photos out there are shot in midwater with
wide-angle lenses. That means the potential for backscatter is increased.
Jellyfish Strobe Techniques
Sidelighting - Sidelighting your jelly will help it to glow from within. The
jelly’s tissue will radiate the light and colors. To achieve this lower your
strobes to an 8 and 4 o’clock position pointed slightly outward. Move into your
subject as close as possible and compose your shot. Check your LCD and continue.
Change your camera position from landscape to portrait to capture different
effects. You will see nice definition and detail, dramatic contrast and deep
shadows using this method.
Backlighting - I like to use backlighting the most but it isn’t always possible.
The sun or a buddy’s flashlight is best for this method. Again the glow is what
you look for, except here it can be brightened with ambient light. Best near or
at the surface, split photos with interesting backdrops and some very creative
compositions can be achieved with this technique.
At depth, a cooperative dive buddy with a strong light can make a so-so photo
into a showstopper. Combining sidelighting with ambient backlighting is a great way to really bring out the true colors, textures and details of these magnificent creatures.
Toplighting - I prefer to use the top lighting technique with only a single
strobe. I mount my strobe on my long arms, or, I’ll turn one off. I position the
strobe above the subject and compose my photo. This is a great method for
shooting in the blizzard-like conditions we often see on blue water dives.
Toplighting your subject as in an interrogation is a strong way to bring the
light from the top down. This method allows the tentacles to fade out naturally
with the loss of light and can simulate sunshine.
Macro photography and shooting life on a jelly can be extremely rewarding too. These drifting orbs can become ecosystems unto themselves, attracting commensal riders such as crabs, shrimp, larvae stage flatfish and much more. When shooting macro on jellies I prefer to use my 60mm lens as it is more forgiving than my 105mm. The lighting is very much the same either backlit, sidelit, toplit or even snooted. The goal is to highlight the critter on your jelly and to bring out its subtle texture.
Modelling - again having a cooperative dive buddy is essential here. Photographing a creature like a jellyfish with a human model will give your shot a whole new perspective. Discussing the shot prior to the dive always helps.
Jellyfish encounters at Anacapa Island
Recently while diving the upper Channel Islands, I had a bloom of jellies come by. As we approached our first dive site, about a good two hundred yards offshore when the deckhand says to me, wow look at the jellyfish. I glanced over and saw a beautiful Sea Nettle. I had set my mind that morning to try and find jellyfish but this was more than I could have wished for. The jellies were drifting into the open water channel at a good clip as I quickly geared up. I stepped onto the platform just in time to see a straggling Sea Nettle drift past just before me.
I asked the deckhand Nate to keep an eye on me and slipped into the current just in time behind the chain of jellies. With a few fin kicks I was in position among the bloom, but struggled to find the right buoyancy. With the current whipping these beautiful jellies by me, I quickly began shooting just below the surface, adjusting my strobes, shooting at different angles and using anything I could to gain perspective. All this in the precious few minutes I had, while also spyhopping on the boat. Too soon, I realized I was drifting beyond the comfort range and so reluctantly decided that I had to leave the encounter behind and get back to the boat.
A few days later while diving in Point Loma, my buddy and I were graced with
seeing more Sea Nettles except these ones were black - a different variety than
that of the ones I saw in the upper channel. This time I had a buddy with me and quickly my buddy became my model. Fortunately we had discussed this scenario prior to getting in the water and he was very cooperative. The greener waters of Point Loma are rich with marine life and a good variety of jellies can be seen here seasonally.
It is amazing to me to see such a prehistoric animal just drifting along as if in a world of its own, seemingly removed from the progress of evolution. Few things in life are perfect and everything is continually changing. So how is it that a creature that is brainless, bloodless, heartless and blind can remain static for so long and still be stronger then ever?
The ocean and her inhabitants are fascinating and jellyfish are at the top of the list for me. From miniscule to monstrous, encounters with these surreal creatures are always interesting and whenever possible, ample time given to experience their presence and to capture their beauty in your photos will undoubtedly be truly rewarding.