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By-the-wind sailors, beached by the wind

April 29, 2017

Back in March, we walked along the beach at Woolacombe, Devon, the morning after a stormy night. The night before had been spent in Ilfracombe, watching tall spray crashing against the sea wall, our senses woken with the energy that only a storm beating can impart.

Woolacombe was still and sunny the next day though, with fog hanging over the hills above, lending an island quality to the town. On the beach, by the rocks, I photographed colonies of mussels, dense mauve blooms erupting from the folds of the grey rocks. The strand line of the beach held a rarer sight though, scores of by-the-wind sailors, Velella velella, driven ashore by the previous night’s storm, and oozing a deep blue into the sand.

Velella are free-floating hydrozoans, related to jellyfish and sea anemones, and are in fact a colony rather than an individual animal. In life they float on the surface of the sea, where a small rigid fin or sail catches the wind (hence the English name, by-the-wind sailor). Mass strandings are relatively common after strong winds on south western coasts in the UK, and also along the west coast of North America. The ‘sail’ is made of chitin, the same stuff as insect skeletons, and the beached colonies very quickly dry out and lose their colour.

Velella velella stranded on Woolacombe beach, March 2017

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