Aug 15, 2010

War on man

Hola mis amigos.
Anyone keeping up with Spain's news? article

Spain's beaches are swarming with jellyfish. Hundreds of swimmers have been stung along both northern and southern coasts in the past few weeks. This large aggregation of jelly is puzzling the locals, because they've never seen this before. To the north, the coastal waters are filled with Portuguese man-o-war.

For a quick rundown, the Portuguese man-o-war isn't really a jellyfish, it's a hydrozoan colony made up of individual highly specialized polyps that integrate to make up a larger animal. On the business end, the loooooong tentacles are outfitted with nematocysts. Imagine triggering thousands of tiny, toxin filled harpoons that shoot out to burrow into your skin. The man-o-war, I believe, is also the only animal on the planet that can produce carbon monoxide...which is the gas within the air sac. If I'm wrong about this, I'm blaming my invertebrate professor from college. A guy, that if you got him drinking enough, would stand up on a table and entertain you with a drunken, animated, amazing story of how he was attacked by an octopus.

I remember last summer on Pensacola Beach, more times than not I saw a purple flag flying over the guard stands. I've only been brushed by a broken tentacle of a man-o-war, and that was painful enough. To me, it felt like a burn. Like pushing your arm up against a hot oven rack. One of my good friends got it pretty bad a few years ago.

Gather round children, I have a little story about man-o-war stings:

A few years ago when I was still a graduate student, we were sent down to Key West to conduct some fish research. We'd go for a few weeks every January to sample King Mackerel from the commercial and recreational fisheries down there. I know, right? Somebody had to do it.

On this particular trip, I was working alongside my lab mates Kate and Mike. Since the charter boats would typically come in in the late afternoon, we pretty much had the days to ourselves. So on this particular day we decided to go snorkeling for a few hours over at Bahia Honda state park on Big Pine Key. The water there usually has decent visibility, and you can snorkel right off of the beach to some nearby patch reefs. I've seen some cool stuff out there, and on two occasions I swam right next to sea turtles. The water was nice, at least for everyone else but me. I wore my wetsuit, because I become an eight year old girl when it comes to swimming in cold water. To me, all water is cold water.

So, we started off of the beach and we noticed that there were alot of floating, blue, jellyfish looking things everywhere in the water. We looked at a few of them up close and Mike, without much doubt, had decided that they were these:

By-the-wind sailor, or sail jellyfish. Harmless.

they were actually these:

Portuguese man-o-war. Here comes the pain train.

which is not to be confused with him:

Man O' War, the top U.S. racehorse of our time.

We snorkeled around for awhile, dodging the blue floaties for fear that Mike might have been mistaken about his species identification. Wrong we were. so, so wrong. The current was flowing pretty good, and one of them floated right over Kate's hand.

I've never heard a woman scream like that. The sound shot fear up my spine. Honestly, I was looking for blood in the water. But when I saw Kate holding her hand, I knew what had happened.

We had to guide her back to the beach, because it seemed like she didn't know which way was up from the blinding pain. We rushed over to the dive shop, where the dive guide gave us some vinegar to pour on her hand. According to Kate, it didn't even faze the pain and it only made her hand smell funny. We were then looking for another option...

"Kate, do you uh.. want us to umm....?"

"Nobody is peeing on me."

Kate decided that as far as she was concerned the snorkeling was over for the day and she wanted to go home to nurse her wounds. Mike and I grabbed all of our gear and we all headed back to the van. When we reached the van (no joke), Mike and I became a little distracted by some topless, European sunbathers splashing each other in the water just off of the beach. The frolicking ladies were apparently unaware that they were in a Florida state park and not on a beach in the south of France. The entire scene took us a little by surprise. It also seemed to give Mike and I some sort of temporary deafness to Kate's pleads for us to leave.


The tone in Kate's voice snapped us out of our trance, and apparently foiled Mike's plan of going over to introduce himself and to welcome them to America.

So, if your friend is stung by a man-o-war and is freaking out:

First, remove any remaining tentacles (given). Then place tentacle on upper lip and call yourself Tom Selleck. I kid, I kid.

But, certainly try not to urinate on your friend...which they may even beg you to, midst their pain. Urine doesn't help, on any level, unless your friend really deserves it. Vinegar, Ammonia, Meat tenderizer...the typical arsenal of jellyfish sting remedies are all useless.

Use hot water. It denatures the proteins in the toxin, and eases the pain. Kate's pain immediately dissipated after she took a hot shower. I did some research, and there was a study done in Newcastle, Australia (Loten et. al 2006) using hot water to relieve pain from man-o-war stings.

But remember, certain remedies only work for certain species.

This is her hand after it happened. She still bears the scars from the contact 3 years later.

This certainly isn't the first time jellyfish have been a problem in the world's beaches and oceans. There have been reports over recent years about large increases in jellyfish populations off of China and Japan, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Mediterranean. In these areas, commercial fisherman trying to catch fish, end up catching tons of jellys along with it only to ruin their catch. Some companies are even developing new fishing nets to try to separate the catch.

Scientists and researchers say that we may have to get used to this because the factors contributing to the jellyness are pretty major. Increasing sea temperature from global warming, overfishing of the jellyfish's natural predators, and the increased pollution that provides nutrients to bloom jellyfish food...plankton. We're doing this to ourselves. The swimming pool is looking better and better isn't it?

I know what you're thinking. "Why is he talking about jellyfish? This is a fish blog."

Well, stop thinking.



  1. You have heard a woman scream like that on one other occasion. That one time when the giant cockroach was climbing down from the attic to eat me. And oh yeah, I hope you have learned the difference between the sail jellies and the men o war, becuase I trust you with my life when we go to the beach. No pressure.

  2. Two things:

    1. I still don't think that picture does justice to the blinding pain.

    2. After you emerge the affected area in hot water, I recommend copious pizza and ice cream.

    -Small and bossy

  3. Liberal quantities of alcoholic beverages would probably help too.