Until I was about 14 my knowledge of jellyfish centred almost exclusively around how big of a lump you could shove into your friend’s underpants at the beach. And for a long time that was enough.
That was all you really needed to know in the summer if you were still too shy to talk to girls. I‚Äôll admit that my interest was piqued when a parent told us that the only way to stop a jelly sting from stinging was to wee on it.* She‚Äôd read an article that had terrified her, and made us all promise we‚Äôd do it before she let us out of the car to go swimming.
The idea of peeing on a howling, teary friend gave us no end of joy, and I think we all secretly hoped it would happen. Still though, that wasn‚Äôt enough to make me think there was anything special about the jellyfish.
And then, one day in biology class, we learned about a type of jellyfish that is immortal.
Immortality was supposed to be a myth ‚Äì a fantasy reserved for Connor MacLeod or Count Dracula. It couldn‚Äôt possibly exist. And yet, it did.
When I was 5 years old my grandmother died of an aggressive skin cancer that had eventually moved to her brain. After the funeral my mom found me at the telephone table, crying sadly and drawing a picture of an angel putting on sunscreen. I wasn‚Äôt just crying for my grandmother or for my mom, or even for me, I think I was crying because on some basic level I‚Äôd come to realise that everything and everyone I‚Äôd ever known or loved was going to die, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
Death took a long time to come to terms with, and to be honest I don‚Äôt think I ever stopped being bitter about it. So, this new possibility of immortality totally unnerved me. Why a jellyfish? Why not us?!
Jellyfish are made up of 98% water. They have a mouth that is also an anus. They have no heart, no brains and no lungs. They‚Äôve been known to shut down nuclear power stations ‚Äì not through any discernible choice or act of will, but because there were a lot of them. And because they just kind of floated up the pipes.
This is the creature that was chosen to live forever.
The oldest known jellyfish fossil is over 500 million years old ‚Äì a remarkable discovery considering it had no hard shell or bones. Scientists believe that they could have been thriving on this planet up to 200 million years before that. Is it possible that just one of those immortal jellyfish had survived until now? What would it do to a mind to live for 700 million years?
These questions drew me to the aquarium.
There‚Äôs this theory about what immortality might do to a brain. Because time is relative, we experience it very differently at different points in our lives. To a 3-year-old, three minutes waiting for the toilet feels like an eternity – not just because they‚Äôre small and full of wee, but because three minutes represents a fairly large unit of time relative to the length of time they‚Äôve been alive. At 90, when you‚Äôve lived so much longer, those 3 minutes is a blink. You can take your time with time. Your brain is so much fuller with memory that neural pathways are physically longer. Thoughts literally take longer because they have greater distances to travel.
Now, what would happen at 190? – With a brain still healthy and sharp, but even more weathered by experience. How much more would time slow down? Would 3 minutes even be a relevant measurement? What about a thousand years from then? And a million years after that?¬†Relative to the length of your life, a day would feel like a fraction of a second. You‚Äôd exist in one infinite instant ‚Äì totally present and not present at all – the embodiment of Zen.
My girlfriend and I spent a quiet hour at the aquarium, watching the jellyfish and thinking about that. They pumped their way around the tank ‚Äì gentle, clumsy and totally oblivious. Their long tentacles all seemed to get tangled up in each other. But, because they didn‚Äôt panic (or even react) they gently untangled themselves as they moved on.
They were totally, utterly calm.
I left with a sense of peace that I couldn‚Äôt quite articulate until Mari summed it up in the car on the way home. ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt think they knew we were there. They didn‚Äôt even know they were there. They were just there‚Ä¶ You know, I think I‚Äôd rather just die, to be honest.‚Äù
*As it turns out, peeing on a jellyfish sting will only aggravate the burn. Fresh water (92% of urine) just causes stingers stuck in the flesh to release more pain-inducing venom. To soothe a burn scrape it with a credit card and pour over salt water‚Ä¶ Although, if you just want to pee on a friend you can pretend you never read this.
Joshua De Kock is a copywriter, food lover and travel enthusiast who would rather be diving for crayfish.
Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town opened a new jelly exhibition in June. For more details visit¬†www.aquarium.co.za.