Remember Sea Monkeys? What The Hell Were Those Things?

Sometimes an iconic childhood pet turns out to be a weird marketing ploy created by a suspected neo-Nazi.

sea monkeys

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Every few hours or so in this, the year 2019, someone tweets about Sea Monkeys. “Am i the obly [sic] one who thinks about SeaMonkeys!”, someone wondered just yesterday. “Y’all remember Sea Monkeys? Wild stuff,” another mused.

And chances are, you do indeed remember Sea Monkeys. Across generations, many of us at one time or another had a small glass or plastic tank filled with the tiny wriggling things, which we grew by emptying numbered paper sachets into the tank on each passing day (water purifier first, then sea monkey eggs, then food).

After that, the Sea Monkeys were simply there, though they bore absolutely no resemblance to monkeys. Actually, they looked more like some kind of weird insect or fish, perhaps a variety of shrimp. Which is, in fact, precisely what they are: a tiny shrimp, a clever marketing ploy, and a bit of a scam.

And then there’s their creator, who’s a whole other kettle of fish, so to speak. He seems to have been a neo-Nazi. We’ll get to him in a moment.

What The Hell Are Sea Monkeys?

Sorry kids, but I have to break it to you: Sea Monkeys are just brine shrimp, typically used as pet food.

They came to be known as Sea Monkeys when their “inventor”, Harold von Braunhut, saw a marketing opportunity: given that brine shrimp eggs can remain in stasis for years without water or oxygen (a feature known as “cryptobiosis” or “hidden life”), they’re perfectly suited to being packaged and sold. The eggs also hatch nearly immediately upon contact with water, providing a pretty effective instant pet for impatient kids.

Von Braunhut saw all this back in 1957, and over the next few years, he made a few clever marketing decisions. He renamed the brine shrimp “Sea Monkeys” (much more exciting), and placed colourful advertisements in comic books, marketing directly to kids. For the low price of $1 (around $10 AUD today), Von Braunhut promised “remarkable” live Sea Monkeys, “guaranteed to grow”, “believe it or not”.

Initially, these Sea Monkeys were fairly underwhelming, on account of being tiny, barely visible shrimp and not the aquatic primates promised. Harold worked to improve this over time by teaming up with a marine biologist to help the Sea Monkeys grow larger and last longer.

He also improved the show by gently fibbing to kids who bought Sea Monkeys: the first packet you empty into a tank is not actually water purifier — it’s the shrimp eggs. The reason you’re instructed to put this into the water and wait 24 hours is to allow the tiny shrimp to grow a bit because otherwise, they’re very hard to see. The second packet contains more eggs, some food, and also — crucially — a little bit of dye, which makes it easier to see the shrimp that have already hatched.

So yeah, basically every part of what you knew as Sea Monkeys is a lie. Sorry.

The Sea Monkeys Are More Powerful Than You Might Think

The concept of Sea Monkeys was, however, a remarkably effective lie. They filled households, inspired a baffling live-action TV show in the 1990s, and so much more.

Their abundance also explains why, when you google “Sea Monkeys”, the question of whether they’re safe to eat comes up. As a certain Junkee colleague of mine explained at the lunch table last week, one time his father came home, jetlagged and dehydrated, and accidentally drank his Sea Monkeys from a glass sitting on the kitchen bench.

As a survivalist forum recently concluded, Sea Monkeys probably are edible — they are, after all, just shrimp. Still, the forum users concluded that Sea Monkeys are nutritionally questionable and probably not an ideal source of food, much to the disappointment of the person who initially asked the question.

“Seriously…? Lol. I am farming them, and I would eat them when they die. I was going to produce a lot of them. But yeah, I stick to vitamins for now :D,” they wrote.

Junkee does not recommend that you eat Sea Monkeys.

Who The Hell Is Harold von Braunhut And Why Did He Lie To Me About Sea Monkeys?

Forget the Sea Monkeys themselves, though — the most horrifying part of this story may actually be the part about their creator. Harold von Braunhut didn’t just invent Sea Monkeys; over the course of his life he also invented things like the Invisible Goldfish (essentially, he sold you an empty fishbowl, with a 100 percent guarantee that you would never see the fish) and X-Ray Specs (glasses that created a weird optical illusion but, crucially, do not actually provide x-ray vision).

He also invented things like the Kiyoga Agent M5, a kind of spring-loaded whip he described as ideal for people who “need a gun but can’t get a license”. According to a Washington Post article from 1988, von Braunhut pledged part of the proceeds of this weapon to the legal defence fund of the leader of the Aryan Nations, a white supremacist, anti-Semitic neo-Nazi organisation.

kiyoga agent m5

Part of an ad for the Kigoya Agent M5 (“With a FLICK OF THE WRIST you send your attacker off HOWLING with UNBEARABLE PAIN!”)

See, it turns out the inventor of Sea Monkeys was, reportedly, allegedly, a bit of a neo-Nazi. Despite being born to a Jewish family as Harold Braunhut, over the course of his life, von Braunhut changed his name and became increasingly involved with neo-Nazi groups.

As the Washington Post reported, von Braunhut was well known to the Anti Defamation League, a group tracking anti-Semitic extremists, and appeared to have ties to a number of far-right groups. He appeared to have financed a $12,000 gun purchase by an Ohio KKK member, and a “Harold von Braun” is listed as a speaker at an Aryan Nations meeting. A man who worked with him told the Los Angeles Times that von Braunhut once said that “Hitler wasn’t a bad guy. He just received bad press”.

Von Braunhut is dead now, and would never confirm his political views with journalists — in 2000, shortly before his death, he told the Los Angeles Times that “I don’t have to defend myself to you or anyone else. I’m hanging up.” Still, several publications have laid out all the evidence in detail over the years, and it looks awfully likely that the Sea Monkeys creator was indeed a neo-Nazi.

How Did We Get From Brine Shrimp To Neo-Nazis?

Sea Monkeys, for what it’s worth, still exist — after Harold’s death his widow, Yolanda Signorelli von Braunhut took over the company. The official Sea Monkeys site states that “Yolanda is now putting much of the proceeds from Sea Monkeys® into a nature preserve that she and Harold created in Maryland. An ardent vegan and animal rights activist, Yolanda believes in the interconnectedness between all life forms. Yolanda is truly the guardian and Mother of the Sea-Monkeys.”

It’s good that someone is guarding and mothering the world’s brine shrimp. It may be best that we simply leave them with Yolanda, and let the idea of Sea Monkeys fade slowly into the void of the past. If you, in 2019, are still wondering about Sea Monkeys, it’s probably time to let them go.