Northwest News

Kaleidoscopic jellyfish display ready for its Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium debut

Like many other beautiful creatures, jellyfish can be high-maintenance.

They need the water temperature just right. Their tanks require creative construction so they don’t get suctioned into the vent or stuck to the bottom. Their behavior changes depending on light and food sources and how many other jellies are swimming nearby. The tiniest scratch on their thin skin can lead to infection or death.

That’s why aquariums didn’t start putting them on exhibit until about 25 years ago.

The Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium opens its “Jammin’ with Jellies” exhibit Friday, which it claims is the most “flexible” exhibit of its kind worldwide.

Chad Widmer, a marine biologist and jellyfish researcher, put painstaking effort into every detail to ensure that zoo visitors can see a sampling of different jellies up close.

“They’re beautiful, not scary at all,” he said. “I want people to be amazed by the jellies. I challenge someone to blow past this exhibit.”

The $181,333 exhibit was designed by Widmer and built by the zoo’s operations department. Widmer knows how much each water valve costs, where each of the dozens of pipes run and which color backgrounds will most make the jellyfish stand out. He engineered four tanks that can accommodate any type of jellies so the exhibit can change over time.

Widmer chose four species to start: blubber jelly, crystal jelly, egg yolk jelly and Japanese sea nettle.

Blubbers are shaped like bells and don’t have the long tentacles usually associated with jellyfish. Crystals appear to be different colors in different light thanks to the green fluorescent proteins around their rim. Egg yolks look just like their name and have long tentacles stretching up to 20 feet. Japanese sea nettles are the most colorful with a sunburst of orange from their center.

Widmer and his team of three used a long bamboo pole with a net to scoop crystals and egg yolks out of Puget Sound after obtaining a scientific collecting permit. Other jellies on display were grown by staff biologists in a room jokingly called New Jellyland, a behind-the-scenes area filled with water tanks of all sizes featuring jellyfish at every stage of life.

They’re growing jellyfish that will eventually replace those on display.

Most jellyfish only live nine months. It takes roughly four months for jellies to grow from the size of a pinprick to a pulsing, diaphanous life form.

Jellyfish don’t have brains, bones, blood or teeth and are more than 95 percent water. Their skin is only two cell layers thick and requires a microscope to see it. Most are harmless to humans and catch their pray with their tentacles, which have thousands of stinging cells that stun their prey with an injection of toxins.

Widmer’s fascination with jellies stretches back to when he was earning his doctorate in biology from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. He went on to work for 11 years at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California and write a booked titled, “How to Keep Jellyfish in Aquariums: An Introductory Guide for Maintaining Healthy Jellies.” A Tacoma native, he returned home last year and began work at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.

When the idea for a jellyfish exhibit was broached, Widmer jumped on board.

“I wanted to build something for my nieces and nephews so they can say, ‘Uncle Chad built that,’ ” he said.

Widmer grins with excitement when talking about jellies. He’s quick to tell people the animals have been around for 540 million years, before the dinosaurs.

As a group of school kids on a field trip meander through the new exhibit and giggle loudly, he stops in his tracks and cocks his ear.

“That’s music to me,” he said. “It’s all about putting smiles on kids’ faces.”

“Jammin’ with Jellies” was designed with children in mind.

Staff biologists chose colorful jellies that would capture the attention of passersby. Visitors can try on jelly hats, dance to an upbeat soundtrack of carefully selected tunes or play instruments made from recycled glass bottles, lids, buckets and pipes.

More than 200 jellyfish made from recycled 2-liter plastic bottles and colored with permanent marker hang from the ceiling.

It’s not all about fun, though.

The zoo’s deputy director, John Houck, said he hopes the new exhibit will help spread a conservation message about the effects of overfishing and climate change.

“Jellyfish are gorgeous and they capture the imagination,” he said. “They help us to tell about healthy oceans and why they’re important.”