How the SF Bay Area Played a Major Role in the Creation of Sea Monkeys

It’s estimated that billions of “sea-monkeys” have been produced and sold since they first came to market in the late 1950s. And they can all trace their roots back to a San Francisco aquarium.

“Sea-monkeys” are equal parts cheeky novelty and wonder of the natural world. Though by no means apes — “sea-monkeys” are basically lab-grown iterations that can trace their ancestor to SF Bay Area brine shrimp (Artemia franciscana) — they are a captivating member of the animal kingdom that played a crucial role in our early experiences of biophilia.

But even as well-known and ubiquitous as these half-inch-sized invertebrates are, they still carry whims of mystery and rare facts. Case in point: Did you all know the SF Bay Area is linked to the later creations of this human-made brine ship species, Artemia NYOS.

And it all began with a simple observation in one of the San Francisco Bay’s salt ponds near San Mateo — nearly thirty years before the first sea-monkey would be developed

“In 1928, just 5 years after [the aquarium’s] opening, Alvin Seale, Superintendent of Steinhart Aquarium, observed that a small crustacean living in the salt ponds near San Mateo was readily eaten by many difficult-to-keep marine and freshwater fishes,” reads a post on X from Senior Director of Steinhart Aquarium Bart Shepherd — who we’ve highlighted before — about how the aquarium was intrinsically tied to the discovery and development of this brine shrimp species.

Shepherd went on to add that in 1933 in a paper published in Transactions of the American Fisheries Society, Seale explained methods for hatching these shrimp from eggs, presenting aquarium enthusiasts around the world with a readily available food supply for aqua fauna — an act of academic openness and generosity that’s now become increasingly rare.

Seale essentially opened the proverbial floodgates for aquarium hobbyists and marine institutions alike to rear and maintain fish stocks that otherwise might’ve died due to starvation. And to think it all was birthed from a by-product of the salt production that took place (and continues to occur) south of San Francisco.

According to Shepherd, the Steinhart Aquarium originally maintained exclusive rights to collect these animals from the Leslie Salt Ponds — those south San Francisco salt ponds mentioned prior — but it transferred its liberties to the San Francisco Aquarium Society (SFAS) sometime in the early 1930s. 

That’s when things were ramped up; SFAS apparently made a large fortune selling these shrimps and their eggs through the 1940s.

By 1950, the brine shrimp production and ownership rights were taken adopted by a Steinhart Aquarium biologist, Maurice Rakowicz, who would later quit his aquarium job to run the brine shrimp business; the Steinhart Aquarium once had an entire room dedicated to rearing and maintaining brine shrimp in the old aquarium set up — “concrete tanks with a trickle of natural seawater going through kept the shrimp alive and healthy,” continues Shepherd on X. “We still have weekly deliveries of live adult brine shrimp, a key part of the diet for many fishes.”

Rakowicz later founded a collection of aquarium companies, including Brine Shrimp Sales… which enjoyed large successes.

It wouldn’t be until 1957 that the term “sea-monkeys” would be used by Harold von Braunhut — considered the “father” of mail-in order “instant pets,” whose SKUs spanned the gamut from brine shrimp and hermit crabs, to plastic “x-ray” glasses and monster trading cards that grew hair — in his selling of the product.

How did his idea of sea-monkeys come to fruition, you might ask? Harold von Braunhut saw a bucket of these brine shrimp — a species found and discovered in the SF Bay Area’s salt lakes — which began his fascination with them. These exact same animals tied to SF’s Steinhart Aquarium would later be hybridized by Harold von Braunhut to produce a human-made species called Artemia NYOS, for increased size and durability before they were sold to the public… as “sea monkeys.”

Though Harold von Braunhut later turned out to be a truly terrible human — he was an openly Jewish man who supported white supremacist groups, including the Klu Klux Klan — it’s comforting to know that the origin of sea-monkeys has more hyperlocal and pure roots that, ironically enough, don’t leave us with a salty taste in our mouths.

Feature image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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