What’s This Little Sailboat Creature and Why Are Millions of Them Washing Up Along the West Coast?

Millions of translucent purple, jellyfish-like organisms have been washing up along the west coast, from California to Oregon. But what exactly are they?

The last time I was walking on the beach, I remember seeing one of these little guys, thinking it was a jellyfish. I was wrong.

These creatures, whose scientific name is Velella velella, aren’t really jellyfish. They are actually hydrozoans, which are related to the Portuguese man-of-war. While they may not be capable of stinging humans, authorities recommend that you don’t touch your eyes or face after handling them. Seems like common sense.

Velella velella live in the open ocean, except when storm patterns and warmer waters tow them ashore, where they typically dry out and die on the beach.

Known as “by-the-wind sailors,” the mysterious organisms, which are made up of hundreds of various other smaller life forms, look like mini sailboats that measure about 2.75 inches long.


“They sit at the surface of the ocean and have little sails,” said Richard Brodeur, a fishery biologist at a NOAA Fisheries research station.

Recently, large numbers of them have been washing up on land.

“This happens every few years, where they get blown onto the beaches,” said oceanographer Bill Peterson.

The animals can be found in locations all over the world, though they typically live in tropical or subtropical waters.