Combing fascinating science with iconic, advertising puffery, Sea-Monkeys have been a perennial stocking filler ever since they were ‘invented’ (or more accurately, bred) in 1957. And while you’ve likely encountered them before, there are probably a fascinating few things about the little guys that you don’t know.
For starters, they’re not actually monkeys (shocking, we know): they’re shrimp. Second, their entrepreneurial creator was a massive bigot who put his money (and barrels of Sea-not-Monkey earnings) where his racist mouth was. A lively video from Great Big Story explains all this thoroughly, but here are your Smith Notes.
The shrimp themselves are actually marvels of nature – and science. The little rascals are specially crossbred crustaceans that can undergo cryptobiosis. This basically means they can live in a condition of apparent lifelessness for decades, possibly centuries, impervious to desiccation, freeze or lack of oxygen. (They’ve even been to space, where they survived without the use of teeny-tiny spacesuits.) Once hatched, they live for two years, and continue to look nothing like monkeys.
Hans Hillewaert, Wikimedia Commons. CC BY SA-4.0
The Sea-Monkey’s creator, Harold von Braunhut, was a master of selling novelty crap advertised in the back pages of comic books, including the infamous X-Ray Specs. He was also a master of subterfuge. Each batch of Sea-Monkeys came with two packets. The first packet (which you add to your monkey bowl a few days early) purports to be a water purifier. In actual fact, it’s the Sea-Monkeys themselves. The second package – the one labelled as the Sea-Monkeys – is but a ruse: a delaying tactic to give the shrimp time to grow. The animals seemingly appearing instantly once the additional powder is added, but it’s just a dye that makes them more visible.
The invention made Braunhut rich and he funnelled that money into his darker interests. In 1968, he released the dystopian-looking Kiyoga Agent M5, a terrifying spring-loaded whip he marketed using the same techniques as his Sea-Monkeys. He thought the best use of all that children’s pocket money was to funnel it into anti-Semitic hate-group the Aryan Brotherhood. This, despite being Jewish himself. Ever the marketer, Braunhut reportedly said “Hitler wasn’t a bad guy, he just got bad press.” As history tends to remember Braunhut unfavourably, perhaps he’d say the same of himself.