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Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Amazing Sea-Monkey

     Sea-Monkey is a brand name for brine shrimp sold in hatching kits as novelty aquarium pets. They were invented in 1957 by Harold von Braunhut, who was also the inventor of Invisible Gold Fish (non-existent fish that were guaranteed to remain permanently invisible), X-Ray Specs and other nonsensical products. 
     Von Braunhut was a marketing genius, but also a personally despicable man. He was born Harold Nathan Braunhut, a Jew, but added the "von" to his name some time in the 1950s so it would sound more German-like. He was associated with white supremacist groups. He bought firearms for a Ku Klux Klan faction and regularly attended the Aryan Nations' annual conference. He also raced motorcycles under the name "The Green Hornet", and managed a showman whose act consisted of diving 40 feet into a children's wading pool filled with a foot of water. Von Braunhut also set up a wildlife conservation area in Maryland. He died on November 28, 2003 at his home in Indian Head, Maryland, following an accidental fall.
     Initially called "Instant Life" and selling for $0.49, von Braunhut changed the name to "Sea-Monkeys" in 1962. They were called Sea-Monkeys because they have a tail that looks like a monkey’s tail. Sea-Monkeys were intensely marketed in comic books using illustrations that showed human-like animals that bear no resemblance to the actual animal and as a result, many purchasers were disappointed by their appearance and short lifespan.
     A colony is started by adding the contents of a packet labeled "Water Purifier" to a tank of water. This packet contains salt and brine shrimp eggs. After 24 hours, this is augmented with the contents of a packet labeled "Instant Life Eggs.” The Sea-Monkeys seem to appear instantly. You have to add the nutrient to prepare the tap water and wait 24 hours before adding the packet of eggs, but there are eggs in the nutrient packet, too. The catch is second packet of eggs also has dye in it, making the first hatchlings easier to see. 
     The shrimp sold as Sea-Monkeys are an artificial breed that undergo cryptobiosis. That is, they live in salt lakes or salt flats and when the water evaporates, the shrimp go into a state of suspended animation. While in this state, known as cryptobiosis, they are in a protective cyst-like casing until water is added. 
     Von Braunhut became fascinated with a species of brine shrimp that he saw being sold as pet food in a pet store and with the help of marine biologist and microcrustacean expert they figured out a way to treat tap water with a mix of nutrients that would revive the shrimp in a tank at home. The next step was to hire a comic book artist, Joe Orlando (who would later become vice president of DC Comics and associate publisher of MAD magazine) to draw the human-like creatures that appeared in the advertising. In 1999 the company that owns the company which markets Sea-Monkeys attempted to revamp the their appearance to make them more appealing to kids of today, but ultimately decided against it. 
     Chain stores had been selling the popular ant farms, but they wouldn’t touch Sea-Monkeys mostly because they had taken a risk on Wham-O's Instant Fish which was a complete flop, unlike Superball and the Hula Hoop. In fact, a buyer at Sears and Roebuck almost got fired for suggesting Sears market the critters. So in 1962, von Braunhut started buying advertising space in comic books. He put ads in every kind of comic book available because he could market directly to kids.  All a kid had to do was send in the money and the Sea-Monkeys would arrive in the mail. 
     Originally the Sea-Monkeys, with the exception of a couple, would die within a month and so a sea-monkey life insurance policy, good for two years after purchase, was actually offered!! Von Braunhut and his partner then began cross-breeding to make a heartier species which was successful. 
     Sea-Monkeys are weird animals in that they breathe through their feet and they are born with one eye, but grow two more upon reaching maturity. They are also attracted to light. When hatched they are about the size of a period, but can grow up to two inches long.
     Originally kids had to supply their own tanks, but in 1962 Sea-Monkey sets that included tanks (Sea-Monkey Ocean Zoo and Sea-Monkey Circus) became available in the late 1960s followed by other “accessories,” such as Sea-Monkey Speedway and Sea-Monkey Fox Hunt.
     A Sea-Monkey Handbook comes with them which offers other products such as “tasty treats,” vitamins and "Sea-Diamonds" which are described as “sparkling sea gems to make Sea-Monkeys happy by giving them toys they will actually play with! 
     Evironmentalists need not worry. Escaping Sea-Monkeys, such as those that may get flushed down the toilet, are not an invasive species because they can’t survive outside of their special environment.
     Males have whiskers under their chins, but the females don’t and you can sometimes see males fighting over female Sea-Monkeys. Females will develop a pouch when they’re pregnant, but they don’t need to mate! They can fertilize their own eggs, a process known as parthenogenesis.  
     In 1998 the Space Shuttle Discovery with Astronaut John Glenn, who, at 77, was participating in a study on the effects of space on the elderly, also carried 400 million Sea-Monkey eggs. The eggs, and Glenn, spent nine days in space and when they were hatched eight weeks later, they showed no ill effects from their journey. Apparently, neither did Glenn. 
     Sea-Monkeys inspired a one-player game which debuted in the early 2000s, but it was described as boring and so it was a failure. The Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys aired on CBS in 1992. The series, starred Howie Mandel as a professor who accidentally enlarged three Sea-Monkeys to human size. It aired in the U.S. and Australia and lasted just 11 episodes. I never saw the show, but suspect that it failed for one of two reasons...either because of the stupid concept or because it “starred” Howie.

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