In the middle of a high-ceilinged room stocked with rowing shells, kayaks and sail boards, a 5-foot-tall jellyfish was coming to life.
But this luminous creature was man-made, its silver and purple tentacles carefully strung together over a frame of tent poles and plastic.
The jellyfish will be just one type of ersatz sea life making up the entry of the Sea World UCLA, a 68-foot marine research vessel, in tonight's Marina del Rey holiday boat parade.
Joining a phalanx of fake fish on the ship will be deckhands in costumes on loan from the UCLA Ocean Discovery Center, a teaching facility on Santa Monica Pier.
"They've got a shrimp costume and a starfish costume, so we're gonna put those on and just have fun," said Shea Garvin, director of the UCLA Marina Aquatic Center.
From Dana Point to Oxnard, more than half a dozen holiday boat parades are taking place in Southern California this weekend and next. And to conform with themes such as "Hollywood by the Sea II" (Oxnard) and "Holidays, Stone Age to Space Age" (Marina del Rey), entrants for weeks have been hacking seaworthy Santas out of plywood, stringing thousands of lights on their vessels and puzzling over what kind of music should come from the beaks of caroling penguins.
Boat parades will be held this weekend in San Pedro, Oxnard and Marina del Rey. Long Beach and Dana Point stage parades this weekend and next; Newport Harbor's runs from Wednesday through Dec. 23. Huntington Harbour's parade begins Monday and also runs through Dec. 23.
The 35th annual Marina del Rey event begins at 5:30 this evening. More than 50 boats will take a few turns around a 2 1/4-mile loop through the marina's entrance and main channel.
Days before the parade, crew members from the Sea World UCLA approached the jellyfish-building with the measured calm of scientists.
Ship engineer Dennis Weyrauch and staff biologist Garen Baghdasarian stretched clear heavy plastic over the assembled poles of a dome-shaped tent. They draped the tent with silver and purple garland "tentacles" and ran little white lights down the length of each pole.
The handful of helpers at the channel-side UCLA boathouse uttered a collective "aah" when the two turned on the lights that had been carefully arranged in the creature's innards. The jellyfish lived.
Propped near the door was a scrawled sketch. The bow of the Sea World, it showed, will be adorned by a Santa atop a swordfish. Aft of the unlikely duo, hidden deckhands will wave fish and dolphins made of painted plastic foam board mounted on sticks, making them appear to swim.
Then come the carol-singing penguins and the jellyfish hanging off the stern. The torso of St. Nick--dubbed "Psycho Santa" for his blood-red cheeks and the dangerous look in his blue eyes--will ride in the crow's nest, 30 feet up.
Psycho Santa, swordfish Santa and the penguin family came with the ship when it was donated to the university by a boat parade veteran in 1995. But fortified by deviled eggs and red and green cookies, and armed with a budget of just $250, Garvin and her crew assembled everything else in one afternoon.
"Hey, Garen, what color are triggerfish?" asked Karen Martin, a UCLA biology department employee, from her seat on the floor.
The biologist turned from the jellyfish to say that the tropical triggerfish should be bright, maybe purple. He also suggested that Martin round off the fish's snout to make it more realistic.
The Women's Sailing Assn. has spent weeks working on its entry, assembling its take on the "Stone Age to Space Age" theme in a small El Segundo studio.
On the deck of the 60-foot sailboat Noteworthy, the association will erect a 24-foot space shuttle that will transform into a huge green dinosaur with the help of a "time tunnel," said Richard Jarel, a Hollywood special effects pro. The moon, Saturn and 11 rotating stars will dance overhead, and a life-size rendition of an astronaut will float out of the shuttle.
Jarel volunteered to help the women and men of the association do all this on a budget of $400.
Betsy Cox had the job of holding narrow-gauge rope taut while her colleagues colored it black with marker pens. That way it won't show against the dark sky when the floodlights are on, she said. Store-bought black line was too expensive.
"We've done it all from scratch, from spit and glue and pieces of paper," Cox said.
Jodie Turner, who organized the sailing association's effort, said that after meeting twice weekly since November, the group has begun to thirst for a trophy--a small geode mounted on a plaque.
Willie Hjorth, a 30-year veteran of the Marina del Rey parade, said competitiveness, camaraderie and love of spectacle drive boaters to enter the event. "The effect of the lights on the water, always moving, is very penetrating to the inner soul," Hjorth said.
But Turner had practical matters on her mind Thursday as her crew finished. "We're hoping that the wind dies down," she said. "I know our dinosaur would take a beating in 40-mile-an-hour winds."