What are Sea-Monkeys?

Karen C. asks: What exactly were sea monkey creatures and how did they survive in their packaging for so long?

sea-monkeysThe product of a collaboration between a marketer and inventor and a marine biologist, Sea-Monkeys are a hybrid of several species of brine shrimp (Artemia), bred to have a particularly long dormant period, as well as to foster a large swarm.

Brine shrimp have existed in much the same state for many millions of years. Found across the globe in saltwater lakes (but not oceans), they prefer habitats of high salinity in order to protect them from predators.

As saltwater lakes tend to dry up from time-to-time, brine shrimp have adapted a technique of going into a kind of hibernation, called anhydrobiosis, where the creature’s metabolic processes stop once it becomes desiccated. When female brine shrimp produce eggs (viable specimens of which can be produced asexually or sexually), if unfavorable conditions are present, the eggs are produced with a special coating and remain in a form of stasis until conditions are right for hatching. Remarkably, when the eggs are in this metabolically inactive state, in certain conditions the eggs can survive temperatures as low as just 83°C above absolute zero and temperatures slightly above the boiling point of water at sea level.

This brings us to 1957 and a man named Harold von Braunhut, who throughout his lifetime invented such famous novelty items as X-ray glasses, Crazy Crabs, and Invisible Goldfish (guaranteed to never appear in the fish bowl that came with the kit- incidentally, never, ever put goldfish in a little fish bowl). After witnessing the success of the ant farms marketed by Milton Levine, von Braunhut came up with the idea for selling brine shrimp in a similar pet kit, which he initially marketed as Instant Life.

Not alone, at about this same time Wham-O floated a comparable product using African killifish, which they called Instant Fish. These particular creatures lay their eggs in the mud of rivers and lakes. If the lake or river then dries out, the eggs are able to survive and stay dormant until the following rainy season when the water is restored. For their product, Wham-O simply sold packets of mud that contained some of these eggs. However, due to their inability to produce a sufficient number of the eggs to make the product commercially viable, combined with issues with quality control (many of the eggs never hatched), they ended up having to stop producing the novelty pet item.

To get around such issues on his own product, von Braunhut enlisted the aid of one Dr. Anthony D’Agostino, a marine biologist, to produce a resilient, hybrid shrimp that could withstand the rigors of the 20th century mail order marketplace. Working at Montauk’s New York Ocean Science Laboratory, they eventually named their hybrid Artemia NYOS.

More than just fiddling with the brine shrimp, von Braunhut and D’Agostino also developed a two-step system to ensure the best possible habitat for the creatures once they arrived at the customer’s doorstep. First, a packet of “Water Purifier” containing salt, water conditioner and brine shrimp eggs was to be added to tap water. The inclusion of the eggs in the so-called “Water Purifier” was so that the illusion of “instant life” could be kept. After emptying this first packet into the water, the instructions indicated to wait 24 hours before adding the second packet, labeled “Instant Life Eggs”.

This second packet contained more eggs, borax, salt, soda and some other food for the brine shrimp. If one kept to the instructed schedule, not long after this second packet was added, the eggs from the first packet would hatch, giving the appearance of “instant life.”

To maintain the brine shrimp, every few days a little more food was added from a packet labeled “Growth Food,” consisting of more yeast and spirulina. If one was lazy and simply didn’t clean the container, the brine shrimp could also happily feed off the algae growing in their home.

Although, as noted, von Braunhut originally marketed the product as “Instant Life,” in 1962 he decided to change the name. The impetus for this change was largely due to the perceived association of his product with the recently failed and unreliable Wham-O product, Instant Fish. The new name von Braunhut came up with was the much more marketable “Sea-Monkeys,” which he justified by claiming the creatures’ tails made them look like monkeys who lived in water. Of course, in truth, brine shrimp neither resemble monkeys nor the happy alien looking sea creature family shown on the famous advertisement. (Incidentally, this artwork was created by former Vice President of DC Comics and Associate Publisher of Mad Magazine Joe Orlando.)

Aggressively marketing his Sea-Monkeys throughout the 1960s and 1970s, von Braunhut once claimed that he was purchasing more than three million pages of comic book and magazine advertising per year at one point.  We’ll leave it to you to decide if you want to believe him on that one.

Given the size of the operation and the somewhat questionable ad copy that, among other things, seemed to imply you could train Sea-Monkeys to obey commands (though if you read carefully enough, it never actually said you could literally train them to do anything), it should perhaps not be surprising that New York’s Attorney General, Louis Lefkowitz, brought a consumer protection lawsuit against von Braunhut in the 1970s for false advertising. Lefkowitz noted things like that the shrimp “were not miniature monkeys, and are not a miracle or anything new scientifically.”

Demonstrating von Braunhut’s mastery of seeming to say things in his ads that he never technically said, the judge who heard the case ultimately threw it out, reasoning that no one gets bent out of shape with the sale of sponge cake, which isn’t a sponge, or the fact that butterflies aren’t made of a dairy product.

Still selling remarkably well today, a recent court case over disputed royalties for the product revealed that, in 2006, Sea-Monkey sales were still grossing nearly $4 million per year.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Harold von Braunhut’s died in 2003 at the age of 77 after an accidental fall. His widow, former star of such films as Venus in Furs, All Women are Bad, Death of a Nymphette, and Too Much Too Often, Yolanda Signorelli von Braunhut, has recently been embroiled in litigation with a toy company, Big Time Toys, that bought certain rights to the Sea-Monkey brand about a decade ago, but, according to her court filings, has failed to completely pay for them. No small sum, royalty payments to her are supposed to be 20% of the gross sales or about three quarters of a million dollars per year, based on the 2006 sale numbers. Instead, Big Time Toys has simply stopped paying her anything.
  • While they still use the name “Sea-Monkeys”, instead of using von Braunhut’s hybrid brine shrimp, according to Jack Hitt of The New York Times, Big Time Toys now buys its eggs from a company in China. Hitt recently experimented with both products to see if there really is anything special about von Braunhut’s variety of brine shrimp, or if this was just another of his marketing half-truths. Using a packet given to him by Yolanda von Braunhut and one of Big Time Toys’ products, Hitt went about “setting up the kits at precisely the same time and with the same water.”  He noted, “On the day that the shrimp reanimated, there was really no comparison. Von Braunhut’s produced hundreds of Sea-Monkeys . . . Big Time’s tank was very quiet by comparison.”
  • More than just a novelty, brine shrimp are widely used in aquaculture as an easy-to-store and cost-effective fish food. More than 2,000 tonnes of Artemia cysts (the dry form) are sold each year globally.
  • Something of an enigma, von Braunhut was a Jewish individual who allegedly greatly admired Adolf Hitler. Also despite his own ethnic background, it was claimed in a 1996 Anti-Defamation League report that von Braunhut was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nations. An article in the Los Angeles Times further claimed von Braunhut occasionally attended Aryan World Congress meetings in the group’s former compound in Idaho. The founder of Aryan Nations, Richard Girnt Butler, also once claimed that von Braunhut had “supported us [for] quite a few years” and was a close friend. While von Braunhut is known to have made a few ridiculously racist remarks in the press, how much of the rest of this is true isn’t totally clear, not the least of which because, even if he did hold these views despite his own heritage, it seems odd that such hate groups would allow a Jewish individual to join up, no matter how much money he was allegedly giving them. As for von Braunhut himself, when questioned by the Washington Post in 1988 about all this, including the oddity of him being Jewish, yet allegedly supporting groups that despise Jewish people, he simply responded, “I will not make any statements whatsoever.” When his widow was asked many years later about how much of this was true by a New York Times reporter, she diplomatically stated “Harold and I never really talked about things like that. We just really loved each other, and I didn’t question him or interrogate him.” As for her own views, she stated, “I am very inclusive with everybody that’s why I live on a farm with all kinds of animals and try to impact the Earth in the least possible way and try to live a peaceful, happy, loving life.”
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