The Sea Gooseberry

In her photographic journal of Britain’s shores, Lisa Woollett encounters all manner of curious objects washed up along the strandline, from mermaid’s purses and shark’s teeth to the mysterious sea gooseberry

Images: Lisa Woollett

Images: Lisa Woollett

“Just ahead of me the gentle incoming tide pushes something transparent a little further up the beach, then leaves it stranded on the sand. It is small and jelly-like, a little collapsed, and I think at first it is a small moon jelly. I pick it up and it is barely there in my palm, transparent, almost weightless, and as it regains its form I realise what it is — a sea gooseberry, the first one I’ve ever found. 

They are not jellyfish, but unrelated ‘comb jellies’. Close-to I can see its near transparent ‘combs’, rows of cilia that beat rhythmically to propel it through the water. It is these that in life give comb jellies their striking beauty. As they beat, the cilia refract light, shimmering with iridescence so pulses of coloured light run the length of their transparent bodies. They are also said to be phosphorescent (or more correctly, bioluminescent) as other comb jellies are, shimmering with blue light after dark. 

Although seemingly fragile they are voracious predators and can eat up to 10 times their own body-weight a day, which often includes other sea gooseberries. Two long feathery tentacles act as sticky fishing nets and the ensnared prey is ‘reeled in’ to the comb jelly’s mouth. 

When I put this one in a nearby rockpool it slowly sinks and all but disappears. There is no movement, no shimmering light show. As with the jellyfish, soon after a sea gooseberry spawns, it dies, so this form is only found in the warmer months.”

This is an extract from Sea Journal, a beautiful and unusual book that brings together a year’s wanderings along Britain’s shores with stories of their natural history, geology and evolution – from ancient myth to current science – and the author’s striking photography.

Lisa Woollett grew up by the sea on the Isle of Sheppey. After a degree in Psychology she studied Documentary Photography and from 1993 worked as a photographer. She lives in Cornwall and current work sells through galleries and exhibitions.