Jellyfish are taking over the ocean. In the past several decades, the free-swimming marine animals have bloomed in dramatic numbers. While populations have been up and down for thousands of years, these diaphanous creatures seem to be better suited for the changes humanity has wrought on the oceans than other marine life. The species has adapted to live happily in warmer waters riddled with pollution and algae blooms, where other marine life has been overfished out of the picture.

And this isn’t just a problem for swimmers looking to avoid getting stung. An overabundance of jellyfish clogs nuclear reactors, forcing plant shut-downs. Jellyfish blooms also reduce the amount of oxygen available to other species in the vicinity. 

To give humans a sense of what an ocean filled with jellyfish could mean, a new art installation tries to simulate how that oxygen deficiency, called hypoxia, feels to other marine life, like fish. The hypoxia simulation is part of “The Trouble With Jellyfish,” a Massachusetts exhibition exploring the environmental impact of jellyfish blooms by artist Mark Dion and marine biologist Lisa-ann Gershwin. It opened last week at Le Laboratoire Cambridge, an art and design center. 


Literally parts of the ocean that are jellied—nothing else can exist in that particular piece of the ocean,” explains Le Laboratoire founder and exhibition curator David Edwards, a Harvard engineering professor who also runs the innovation lab ArtScience Labs. Sumaia Alamoudi and Anna Haleblian, students in a class of Edwards' at Harvard, came up with the idea for the hypoxia simulation, where visitors can experience how it feels to be in a low-oxygen environment.

The space contains two chairs underneath a hanging yellow contraption that resembles a pillow. It pumps low-oxygen air through a tube down to two mouthpieces. Visitors can sit in the chairs and “sip” air that’s only about 16 percent oxygen (compared to the 21 percent oxygen we normally breathe). “It can’t be described in words,” Edwards warns, but “it’s very acute.” (But not crazy—Quito, Ecuador, at 9,300 feet above sea level, has air that’s about 15 percent oxygen.) He describes the simulation as kind of like drinking out of a water fountain. 

“Jellyfish are not evil in themselves,” Edwards notes, “but they are the cockroaches of the ocean. They live where other things have trouble living.” And when they move into an area that’s already dying, they suck up what little resources that remained, leaving an oxygen-less, nutrient deficient “dead zone” where nothing but jellyfish or plankton can survive. 

It’s a dark future, but one that’s hard for people to get concerned about. Still, simulating the experience of what jellyfish blooms do to the oceans, might help humans feel a little more invested in keeping the marine wildlife alive. 

“The Trouble With Jellyfish” runs until Jan. 2, 2016 at Le Laboratoire Cambridge.

All images courtesy Le Laboratoire Cambridge