Jellyfish Husbandry

November 30, 2009
Invertebrate investment: Andon eyes Blue Jellyfish specimens as he prepares to transfer them to a holding tank

Invertebrate investment: Andon eyes Blue Jellyfish specimens as he prepares to transfer them to a holding tank. Peter DaSilva.

Jellyfish are like ocean-dwelling kudzu—fast-growing, pesky, and hyper-abundant. But take them out of the wild and they're even harder—and potentially, more painful—to keep as pets than some of the most expensive reef fish. That's where Alex Andon '06 comes in.

Last year, the founder of Jellyfish Art set out to overcome the four major obstacles to keeping jellyfish in home aquariums. After about a year of working with pipes, sea monkeys, and fishing nets, he has reduced the tricky business of jellyfish husbandry to an easily applied science.

A Desktop-Sized Ocean

Obstacle: The ocean knows no bounds, and neither do jellyfish; these weak swimmers tend to travel wherever currents carry them. That creates problems in regular fish tanks, where they get stuck in corners or sucked into filtration systems. And special jellyfish tanks in public aquariums are prohibitively large and expensive.

Solution: Andon developed a cylindrical tank with a water-flow pattern that resembles a mushroom cloud. Opposing jets suck water into a filter while keeping the jellyfish and their tentacles animated in the center. In March, he expanded his offerings from three-foot-wide, $2,400 tanks to include a $250 desktop version.

Food for Thought

Obstacle: Though jellyfish will sting almost anything, they're picky eaters. Every day, public aquariums hatch freeze-dried brine shrimp (a.k.a. sea monkey) eggs, soak them in an enrichment solution, and wash them before finally feeding them to their jellies.

Solution: Knowing most hobbyists don't have that kind of time, Andon developed a frozen food that's equally nutritious—and can be dispensed straight to the tank from a custom-made automatic feeder.

A Jelly Fido

Obstacle: There are more than 300 species of jellyfish, but not all of them make good pets. Andon needed a species that was attractive, hardy in captivity, receptive to his frozen food, and, for his desktop tank, small enough to fit inside.

Solution: Andon pored over scientific journals and consulted with experienced marine biologists at public aquariums. He tested fifteen species in a tank in his apartment. Ultimately, he narrowed the list to a handful of species such as the Moon Jellyfish, a ghost-like blue or pink dome, and Pacific Sea Nettle, a mop of variegated orange tendrils that looks like a sculpture by Dale Chihuly.

Catch It If You Can

Obstacle: Live jellyfish aren't sold at pet stores, or pretty much anywhere else.

Solution: Andon tried hatching and raising his own but found the process extremely labor intensive. In July, he wired $1,500 to a mysterious supplier in Sri Lanka but never received the promised batch of blue jellies. He now buys them from a reliable supplier in Japan and catches Pacific Sea Nettles himself using an inflatable skiff and fishing net in Northern California's Tomales Bay.

"With jellyfish, if you go to the right spot, there are just millions of 'em," he says. "You can just scoop up thirty at a time. They are overpopulated. It's almost the perfect animal to be going after."