Weekly Wire
Metro Pulse The Secret of the Jellyfish

The season for mountain outings has begun. Let's not spoil it for our tentacled friends.

By David Madison

APRIL 10, 2000:  Freshwater jellyfish don't know that April signals the official start of fudge and trinket season in Sevier County. From now until the autumn color fades, Gatlinburg will clash with Pigeon Forge in a war for tourist dollars. It's an ongoing battle where casualties are measured in traffic jams, rising ozone levels, and declining wildlife inside Smoky Mountain National Park.

The Smokies are being loved to death, but that doesn't mean freshwater jellyfish have to join the body count. That's why from now on, I plan to keep my favorite non-Smoky Mountain getaway a secret. It's a beautiful place just outside the park's boundary. And for now, it's full of jellyfish, not tourists.

Even though most people have never heard of freshwater jellyfish, these fascinating creatures happen to have a lot in common with the average vacationer. On the emerald surface of mountain lakes, both appear in one gelatinous mass during the hottest days of summer. There they float: The jellyfish using tentacles to propel themselves, the tourists lazing about on houseboats stocked to the portholes with fatty snacks.

At my favorite lake high among the coves of Southern Appalachia, a species of jellyfish known as craspedacusta sowerbii congregate near a dam built by the TVA. They're passive, translucent creatures that are hatched from polyps living on the bottom of the lake.

When full-grown, the tiny jellyfish display medusa-like tentacles and are about the size of a quarter. But when they school together near the dam, the jellyfish form one big blob. They leisurely swim about, eating any zooplankton treat that comes their way.

The jellyfish feed as a bunch like tourists at a pancake house. This makes their gathering spot near the TVA dam look like a Gatlinburg for invertebrates. It's where these slippery buggers spend the busy summer and fall tourist seasons.

But unlike tourists in Pigeon Forge, jellyfish can't meet the height requirements for rides at Dollywood. And their petite digestive systems could be crippled by a microscopic portion of Grandma's fudge.

I know this because a friend of mine who grew up in Sevier County told me. She's the person who introduced me to freshwater jellyfish. While on an ecology field project for a class at UT, she spotted a whole mess of them in my favorite lake—my non-Smoky hideaway. After the sun went down, she said a few of the students swam naked in jellyfish waters.

"Their tentacles don't sting," assured my friend. "They just kind of stick to your finger when you touch them."

Years ago, my family spent a few summer weeks camping by the same lake. Mom parked the Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon, the one with the moon roof and fake wood paneling, by a campsite in the shade. The place made me feel truly isolated. None of us kids had ever been that far away from fast food.

At the next camp over, an old man from Florida passed the long, warm days alone. In the mornings, he'd swim near the shore using a snorkel and mask. The man told me that before retiring, he'd helped make the film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

The man also told me I could borrow his scuba mask anytime. I didn't know how to use a snorkel, so I'd hold my breath and swim down deep to where the green water turned cold. I'd bring a slice of bread and start a feeding frenzy. Fish schooled around me like hammerheads outside a shark cage. I was chumming the waters with grainy sandwich bread. Through the old man's scuba mask I could see a variety of fish in all directions: Red-eye perch, largemouth bass and trout fingerlings, but no jellyfish.

So 20 years later, after hearing about my friend's naked jellyfish encounter, I had to make contact myself.

My first stop was the roadside hamlet of Pumpkin Center. A guy at the bait and tackle shop said he'd never heard of jellyfish living in the mountains.

I asked, "What about eels? Are there eels in the lakes around here?"

"Yeah, there are eels, but no jellyfish."

As I drove on, I wondered if Mr. Bait and Tackle was just playing dumb. How did he know so much about eels, but nothing about jellyfish? I wondered if the people living in the shadow of Gatlinburg feared the jellyfish—not for its sting, but for its lack of one.

If freshwater jellyfish were as cute and cuddly as my friend had described them, then what would happen if the gift shop kingpins in Gatlinburg got wind of them? Would the words "Live Appalachian Jellyfish" instantly appear on billboards up and down I-40? Would the quiet land of the jellyfish be spoiled by keychains with tentacles and a special edition Beanie Baby named Jelly?

When I reached the convenience store in Deal's Gap, I thought about badgering the Harley Davidson crowd parked out front. I wanted to know about their relationship with jellyfish. But I worried that my questions would send a sudden hush over the crowd of denim and leather clad bikers.

I imagined the awkward silence being broken by the biggest and meanest biker in the bunch. I imagined him asking, "Jellyfish? Did you say jellyfish? Why, it ain't safe for a man to come snooping around about jellyfish!"

I decided to avoid the bikers and instead poke around inside the store. The guy behind the register welcomed questions about jellyfish. He said he started seeing schools of "hydras" in the nearby lakes about 15 years ago. "I was surprised to see 'em," he said, describing how these hydras, or jellyfish, mass together in the water during the hottest months of the year.

The resident hydra expert at the Deal's Gap store said that jellyfish season didn't start until late summer. Outside the air was still crisp with an early spring chill. It looked like my jellyfish hunt was futilely premature.

But I pressed on, into the land of the jellyfish. As a child explorer in this place, I'd found orange salamanders that glowed louder than golf shirts. I'd even spotted a hellbender once. A foot under water in a trout stream, it resembled a dinosaur shrunken to the size of a house pet.

My favorite place in the land of the jellyfish is another prehistoric beauty. It's a protected virgin forest where tulip poplar and hemlock trees create a stunning canopy above thickets of rhododendron. In cartoon movie terms, it's FernGully. For Star Wars fans, it's Ewok forest. And in the ticky-tack lingo of Gatlinburg, it's Ripley's Believe It Or Not.

The land of the jellyfish's natural resilience may be its most freakish quality. The place can even withstand the brutish bathroom habits of houseboaters who make the lake their toilet. According to studies done by a UT professor, toilet paper will sink until it reaches a specific depth and temperature level. Once there, it floats in cool suspension throughout jellyfish lake. The soiled scraps of Charmin and White Cloud remain below the surface. They don't spoil the water's brilliant green clarity. At least, not yet.

It's hard to say what's in store for the land of the jellyfish. When I go back, I can't help but notice that my family's favorite campsite is now a logging road. And every year, the lake seems to attract more houseboats with jam boxes blasting "maximum country!"

Not that there's anything wrong with maximum country or houseboats or Gatlinburg. In fact, the land of the jellyfish's future may depend on Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge's continued success as tourist traps. To hikers and campers in Knoxville, the over-paved parts of Sevier County should resemble one big strip of fly paper shifting in the Appalachian breeze.

Tennessee's gateway to the Smokies is so sticky and sweet that minivans full of people in sleeveless T-shirts can't help but stay there. They're content in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. And that means they may never steer their Dodge Caravans toward the land of the jellyfish.

After returning from my recent jellyfish hunt, I called a jellyfish expert at the Chattanooga Aquarium. He told me that jellyfish were an indicator species, a sign that an ecosystem is in good health. The jellyfish naturally come and go, reproducing some years, then disappearing, sometimes forever.

The guy from the Aquarium said jellyfish sightings have been reported all over Tennessee and North Carolina—even in parts of the Tennessee River.

Let us pray that in these treasured places the humble jellyfish is never confronted with a stray piece of Grandma's fudge.

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