The 1960s were full of strange pet crazes. While pet rocks and invisible dogs might have faded from memory, one craze lingered on for decades. Sea monkeys were sold as amazing undersea pets that even young children could care for easily. The iconic cartoon-based marketing materials sparked a pop-culture craze that is still referenced today.
Despite their fame, however, not many people see them around anymore, which leaves many people wondering "what happened to the sea monkeys?"
Despite their name, a sea monkey isn't an amazing underwater primate. Instead, they're a species of brine shrimp. This species, known as Artemia NYOS, is a hybrid of several types of naturally occurring brine shrimp. The creators wanted to create a hardy breed that was large enough for children to see since most brine shrimp are nearly microscopic. The NYOS portion of the name stands for New York Oceanic Society, which is where the original brine shrimp were bred.
Sea monkeys were marketed as instant pets. Just add water and wait for them to spring to life, fully grown and swimming around. They were able to be packaged dry because this species of brine shrimp are able to go into a state called cryptobiosis, which is essentially a type of extreme hibernation. It occurs when the shrimp are frozen, deprived of oxygen or completely dried out. Once the brine shrimp are placed back into a normal environment, they are able to resume life as normal.
Although the classic marketing materials depicted human-like creatures with fins, real sea monkeys are quite different. They resemble insects more than monkeys, with a long, thin body, multiple feathery-looking legs, and a long tail. Juvenile brine shrimp only have one eye, although they develop two more when they become adults. Males and females are fairly similar, but male brine shrimp have whiskers under their chins. Don't bother looking for gills as these unusual creatures breathe through their feet.
The Sea Monkey kit came with a package of "magic vitamins" and other food items, but the ingredients in those aren't much of a mystery. Sea monkeys thrive on foods like yeast, egg yolk, and wheat flour. Classic sea monkey kits also came with a special banana-flavored dessert that kids could feed their pets, but the sea monkeys probably didn't notice it was any different than their usual fare. Spirulina algae is also good for their growth and development.
The concept was dreamed up by Harold von Braunhut, a toy creator who was inspired by the popularity of ant farms and his interest in wildlife. He saw brine shrimp being sold as fish food at a pet shop and thought that they would make a good educational toy for children, so he teamed up with a marine biologist named Anthony D'Agostino to create the large, low-maintenance species of brine shrimp that came to play a big role in many childhoods.
Sea monkeys were not originally marketed under that name. Instead, they were sold under the name Instant Life and described as Saskatchewan brine shrimp in marketing materials. However, von Braunhut had always affectionately called them sea monkeys due to their long tails, which reminded him of a monkey's tail. In 1964, he decided to change the name, and a pop culture icon was born.
Most people can picture the distinctive, cartoonish sea monkeys seen in the classic ads. Those were created by a famous comic book artist named Joe Orlando, who was hired by Harold von Braunhut to create eye-catching ads. Orlando would later go on to become the vice president of DC Comics.
The comic book connection doesn't stop there, though. In the 1960s and 1970s, sea monkeys were primarily marketed through full-page ads in comic books. Readers could clip out an order form, send it in and receive their sea monkeys in the mail a few weeks later.
Early advertisements claimed that sea monkeys could be trained, but many children were disappointed to learn that that is not true. However, sea monkeys do have some fun instinctive behaviors. They naturally gravitate towards light, so they will follow a flashlight or other beacon around. If you place your finger at the edge of their bowl, they will also usually swim up to investigate it.
Although many kids were disappointed with how small a real sea monkey was, the iconic marketing captured public imagination. Sea monkeys are frequently referenced in pop culture to this day, including appearances in shows like South Park and The Simpsons. They even had their own television show on CBS, which aired in 1992 and starred Howie Mandel. Sea monkeys were even sent into space with astronaut John Glenn to study the effects of space travel on their eggs. The eggs hatched normally upon their return to Earth, and no ill effects were noted.
It may surprise you to learn that after all this, sea monkeys are doing just fine. While they're rarely seen in stores, you can still purchase them online from many major retailers. The company has moved away from comic book advertising, but still uses an updated version of the classic cartoon images to illustrate the instruction booklet and marketing materials.