Israel’s jellyfish wars: Who warns the bathers better?
The Facebook page Jellyfish Watch and the website Meduzot (Hebrew for Jellyfish) were set up to monitor the swarms that reach Israeli shores. Both offer updates from the beaches and fight for every surfer.
Like the social protest, which is showing fissures and will be holding its main event at two different Tel Aviv locations, the battle for better jellyfish warnings has also developed ego-driven disputes and divisions that look ridiculous to outsiders.
Prof. Bella Galil of the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute (IOLRI) has been following jellyfish swarms for decades and her institute now operates a Facebook page called Jellyfish Watch, with reports on jellyfish sightings at Israel’s various beaches.
But Jellyfish Watch has a competitor in the form of a website called Meduzot (jellyfish) at meduzot.co.il, which is operated by Dor Edelist and Dror Angel, two energetic marine ecologists from the University of Haifa. Both sites opened last year, only about a month apart, and both are based in Haifa.
“They’re the opposition; we’re the coalition. There’s a war and we’re better,” insists Edelist from the Meduzot site. “Our website was first. There’s a certain degree of cooperation, but it’s not easy to work together. They prefer to ignore our existence and don’t give us any credit. I’m all in favor of cooperation and sane management on their part.”
Galil of the IOLRI is widely acknowledged as the top Israeli expert on jellyfish; she is an international authority and essentially one of the founders of this field of study. There is even a species of jellyfish named after her : Rhopilema Nomadica Galil. From that perspective, the battle being waged by the Meduzot website could be considered a form of matricide.
Edelist does not deny Galil’s status as a researcher. “I give her credit, from a professional perspective, not a personal one,” he says. Galil could not be reached for comment, because she is currently abroad.
“Twenty-thousand users entered our site this year,” Edelist says, proudly. “They have 20 people reporting regularly, we have 200.”
The Meduzot site has a daily “jellyfish map” depicting the many reports that stream in, like that from surfer Shai Agam from the Rishon Lezion beach on Sunday: “The sea is full of jellyfish, the water stings unbelievably and lots of jellyfish are being washed ashore!”
Edelist claims that the competition between the two sites has deteriorated into a cyber war.
“There are attacks on our site by rude kids who flood us with false reports. I can see in the spelling mistakes in the reports a style that I recognize from the Jellyfish Watch site,” he says. “Twice a day I was erasing those messages. I finally commented about it on their site, and it stopped.”
Edelist believes that in the end they will join forces, blaming the egos of the Jellyfish Watch people for the division.
“Not a day goes by when I don’t ask myself why we aren’t working together,” he says. “Either we’ll absorb them, or they’ll agree to absorb us. They are government employees who get paid, and we’re volunteers. I’d be happy to make money from this hobby.”
Rachel Welner, a member of the Tel Aviv City Council and a swimmer, reports to the Jellyfish Watch page. “The competition between the sites is funny,” she says. “There’s actually a battle over who will report new jellyfish first.
“I’m on Jellyfish Watch because the IOLRI has been operating for a long time and everyone knows Bella Galil. You have to be loyal to those who’ve been doing research for years.” She also admits, “I’d love to have a jellyfish named after me.”
Indeed, one of the major issues in the study of jellyfish is the new species that are being discovered. Two new ones -- Cotylorhiza tuberculata and the Marivagia stellata -- were first seen in Israel over the past two years, and this year they are arriving in swarms. These jellyfish are small, up to 20 centimeters wide, and have a less painful sting.
“Today there’s a swarm of stellatas in Michmoret; two days ago they were in Ashkelon and Tel Aviv,” says Edelist. “This is a pink, very pretty jellyfish; on its bell it has a type of small purple flowers.”
About the cotylorhiza, he says, “This is the first year they are here. They are generally in the Aegean Sea and in Spain. There they are orange and yellow; here they’re brown.”
Edelist says he is trying to make contact with colleagues in neighboring countries and forge cooperative efforts.
“We are dying to be in contact with Gaza and Lebanon. Even Egypt has been tough lately,” he says. “I’ve sent emails to researchers in Egypt and Lebanon but never got an answer.”
Prof. Galil, whom this writer interviewed a year ago, spoke about cooperation with Lebanon, Libya and Tunisia. “When we meet at conferences in countries like Turkey, we all hug and kiss,” she said.
Many of the jellyfish spotters are teens, like Roni Ziv, 17, of Bat Yam, a student in a military high school. Ziv got an underwater camera as a present for his 16th birthday and since then has become addicted to Jellyfish Watch, admitting that he’s a big fan of Galil’s.
“Sometimes they ask me to freeze them; sometimes they ask that I trap them alive,” he says. “Two weeks ago I found what was apparently a cotylorhiza that was blue, a species that came from Egypt. I was the first to photograph it.”
Welner has also been asked to freeze cotylorhizas.
“They asked me at the institute to wrap it and put it in the freezer so they could check if it was a cotylorhiza. I was nervous, because my husband isn’t interested in finding jellyfish in the freezer. I also don’t know if that’s considered animal abuse, I don’t want to upset anyone,” she says.
Then there are the “double agents,” those that report to both camps.
Moshe Zorea, 47, of Kibbutz Ma’agen Michael, calls himself a “sea-smith” – someone who makes jewelry from things originating in the sea. Asked how he got hooked on photographing jellyfish, he says, “I love beauty, I love to see it and to show it to others. There’s plenty of beauty in these creatures.”
He doesn’t want to get involved in the jellyfish wars. “I report to all the websites. I don’t understand scientists’ politics. I don’t get involved in politics in general,” he says.
Zorea is less excited by the discovery of new species. “It’s simply changes in ocean currents that are sweeping them here. The scientists don’t really know what’s happening.”
Asked what his favorite jellyfish is, Edelist thinks a bit and then admits he’s attracted to the toxic Rhopilema Nomadica.
“I have no problems with their sting,” he says.