I wonder. Which is an odd pair of words to start a column with. An odd pair of words, generally, once you start wondering about it, because unlike, say, ‘I run’, or ‘I paint’, or ‘I levitate’, together they have become a rather odd bit of language – bobbing about, like a boat without a rudder.

Which is a shame, because wondering’s brilliant. It’s one of the best things to do when there is nothing much else to do, particularly when teamed with a protracted bout of wandering. Do the two – wander, wonder, or, if you like, wonder, wander – and, trust me, you’ll never be bored.

So to last weekend (though I wonder on weekdays as well) when we were in Nice , by way of the alps, by way of Italy, by way of – ahem – another creative bit of work-life-balance planning. And though it’s a city I’m professionally obliged to refrain from calling nice, it’s a pleasant place to spend a couple of days.

And I wonder sometimes (there I go again) if I should write a nature column of some sort. Because, again and again, be it Nice, Nantes, or Nottingham, I find myself drawn to the natural.

God forbid that it should be anything preachy, though. No, just some ramblings about nature for the lay nature-fancier. The person, who like me, sees something, and wonders. And takes a photo, then another, and then tracks down some wifi, and spends time – in the best of worlds, dragging loved ones along also – finding out not just what they’ve had the privilege of seeing, but what it’s like, how it lives –  its evolutionary USP.

It’s not really surprising that I am that sort of person. I’ve always been a bit of a Charles Darwin groupie, and my museum of choice would always be the Natural History. But, to my shame, I had a male character in one of my early novels, and, because he was the also-ran, the dolt, the nice-but-dull one, I had him go on a country walk ‘clutching his trusty field guide to flora and flora’ and, worse, had it ‘bristling with post-it notes’. Ouch. Nevermore shall I malign IMG_484125198 such as him.

But I digress. Lunch on beach. Then nice post-lunch beach wander. And because you couldn’t miss it, I saw it straight away. This weird ribbon on the shoreline. This unexpected seam of blue. Not a sea blue or a sky blue – nailed to a post, I’d call it indigo. Which then resolved itself into something quite different. Not surf scum, or seaweed, or pebbles, or shells. No, more like tiny jelly fish, washed up on the shore, as if Triton, or Poseidon, or some other watery overlord, had come along and simply strewn them there, possibly while in a mood. Like jewels, they were – spangly. But also like boats. With deep azure hulls, that were almost opaque. And each topped with a perfect transparent sail.

“Wowee wow!” I said. “Woo! Isn’t nature amazing?” And almost as amazing was that in a long, inquisitive life, I had never seen anything like them before. Moon jellyfish, yes. We get them down on the Gower. But not these intense alien creatures.

It was all I could do not to wake the slumbering masses. Have you seen these? Are you not, like, amaze-balls about them? What are they? And where did they come from?

The surface of the ocean, apparently. These little animals (which are actually hydrozoans called vellela vellela) are adapted to live at the air-water interface, where their sail lets them travel on the breeze. Which is why their common name is the delightful ‘By-The-Wind Sailor’, and also why, since they are obviosuly at the weather’s mercy, they sometimes end up shorebound, and stranded, en masse.

And get this – there are left handed and right handed vellelas, the angle of the sail being apparently dictated by where in the worlds oceans they live. Righthanders off the west coast of America, mostly, while the lefthanders favour Japan and Siberia.

But on the med? I might be wrong, but as far as I can tell, this is uncommon. Which makes it noteworthy – which is why another thought springs to mind. I’m probably wrong about this too. It’s much more likely to be the sky thing. But how about this – that those tiny vellela vellela are the real reason it’s known as the cote d’azur? Azure, indigo – same difference, pretty much, after all.

So you think perhaps it could be?

I wonder.

First published in The Western Mail Weekend Magazine 7th May 2016


*after the brown one, that is 😉

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