I may never dip my toe into the sea again. I’ve just read an article that has turned my legs to jelly, which is quite apt really because it is all about jellyfish.
To be fair, I’ve always been a little nervous about exposing my naked flesh to the great oceans of the world or more accurately the creatures that reside within those vast expanses of brine. We all know that there are dangers there. I mean, who hasn’t seen “Jaws”? But at least you get a warning with sharks. If you are on the beach in a warm climate the chances are that the telltale dorsal fin will warn you of a shark’s approach.
Jellyfish, on the other hand are another story.
I first became aware of these odd beasts on a holiday in the north of England as a child; washed up on the shore was a strange creature with tentacles that looked like an alien creature from hell. “Don’t touch it,” yelled my Dad. “It will sting!”
Well that was enough for me. I have a fear of any creature that will bite or sting. I was off the beach before you could yell “Jellyfish”, whipping up a major sandstorm in my wake.
My next encounter with a jellyfish, or should I say a fluther of jellyfish, was on a ferry between Vila Real de Santo António in Portugal and Ayamonte in Spain. I was a student, travelling around Europe with two friends and we were taking the early morning ferry. The sun was peeping over the horizon, the air was cool and comfortable and I was at peace. My two friends were staring into space and I decided to observe the tranquil sea. However, it wasn’t tranquil at all. Swarming around the boat, like a pulsating nightmare of rubber were literally thousands of huge jellyfish. I had never seen anything like it. The worst thing about the creatures were their horrifically long tentacles. There were so many that if I had been crazy enough and completely lost my mind, I felt I could have slipped over the side of the boat and walked to Spain on their backs. They were big and they terrified me. Later on our holiday, we visited a couple of places in Spain next to the coast and I swear that I refused to set foot in the water; I had to be persuaded to even walk on the beach in case one of the monsters washed up onto the sand.
Three years ago, I was lucky enough to go to Australia. On my very first day in that beautiful country, I wandered onto the beach and saw this:
The jellyfish I saw in England was small; the ones in Portugal and Spain were big. The one represented by this sign, a box jellyfish, looked huge. In fact the sign made it look more like a giant octopus. I suppose, in many ways, it is good that the creature is so large because at least you can see it coming have time to get over your blind panic before swimming away like a creature possessed.
This venomous monster looks like this:
The box jellyfish can often be found on or near to beaches that the human population of Australia are attracted to. Thankfully they only appear in the Northern Australian seas. It is named because of its box shaped head – I think if I’d named it I would have called it something like the Killer Jellyfish.
I did some research on this monster and discovered that it weighs up to 2 kg and has up to 15 tentacles on each corner that can be up to 15m in length. Each tentacle can have up to 5000 stinging cells. Why in God’s name would a creature need 75000 stinging cells? It makes me wonder whether there is another much larger creature out the in the Australian seas that feeds on box jellyfish. Why else would it need to defend itself so vigorously?
You may think that a beast such as this can only move slowly. Wrong! It can propel itself along at speeds of up to 4 knots (about 5 mph). Avoiding it is therefore not easy. So much for me thinking that I could outswim it in a blind panic.
But it gets far worse than that. You cannot survive being stung unless the venom is treated immediately. The pain is excruciating and the likelihood is that if you are stung, you will almost certainly go into shock and drown before you reach the shore. The treatment is to pour vinegar over the stings as soon as possible. The warning sign came equipped with a bottle of vinegar and instructions on what to do. You would have to be insane to step into the water on your own. In fact if, in a fit of madness, I decided to chance it, I would insist that there were at least twenty life guards swimming around me; not to rescue me, but to get in the way of any box jellyfish that happened to be in the vicinity.
But there is something worse in the seas of Australia and unlike its cousin, the box jellyfish, this creature is tiny – so much so that you can’t see it. I am talking about the Irukandji. This demonic little beast is only 2cm in diameter. It has a single tentacle on each of the four corners of the bell but at 50mm in length they do not help to make this tiny creature visible. Because of its diminutive stature, it can evade any barriers constructed to keep out box jellyfish by simply swimming over under or through them.
If that wasn’t enough, the Irukandji is almost transparent, making it difficult to see in daylight should it be washed ashore. In the sea, the damned thing is practically invisible. It looks like this (not that it will help being so microscopic):
Now, if you thought that this insignificant creature was harmless you would be totally wrong. The sting itself is not actually that painful. The problems occur about half an hour afterwards. All of a sudden, the victim begins to have a severe headache and backache accompanied by shooting pains in their muscles chest and abdomen. As the venom takes hold, the victim suffers from extreme nausea and vomiting. In extreme cases the patient suffers pulmonary oedema or fluid on the lungs, which is fatal if left untreated.
The symptoms I have just described were afflicting bathers in the seas off Cairns before the little terror was actually discovered. Back in 1964, a doctor called Jack Barnes speculated that a jellyfish was responsible for these symptoms, called Irukandji syndrome and named initially after a tribe of who lived in the Cairns area. So how did he go about finding the culprit? He spent hours in the water with a wet suit searching for new jellyfish. By chance, one of the little blighters swam past his mask so he caught it. And what did he do to prove that his little captive was responsible for this horrible ailment? He stung himself with it! Yes that’s right – the idiot actually allowed the little beast to sting him. As if that weren’t enough he felt he needed a better test so he stung his own son and also a surf life saver who happened to be with them. If I had been with him at the time, I would have hit the guy for even suggesting that I allow a jellyfish to sting me. Maybe it was a macho thing; three big manly Australians can take a little itty bitty sting from a tiny marine creature.
Well the inevitable happened and all three of them ended up in hospital. Many people called it dedication. I call it gross stupidity! For his efforts Dr Barnes’ reward was to have the jellyfish named after him – carukia barnesi is the official Latin name. I bet the life saver was a bit pissed off about that!
So, back to the article that rekindled my fear of jellyfish. According to the article, the US government has warned that armies of killer jellyfish are marauding around our beautiful oceans. What’s so bad about that I hear you say, safely, sitting in your comfy chair reading this post? Well these brutes are reported to weigh up to a quarter of a ton and some of them are the size of fridges. A QUARTER OF A TON!!! THE SIZE OF A FRIDGE!!!!
Not only have they invaded the seas, they are actually damaging ships. I can imagine the captain of a boat peering over the side and saying
“Look at that – some swine has dumped a fridge in the sea. Wait a minute – that’s no fridge. It’s got tentacles – RED ALERT! GET US OUT OF HERE!!!”
Well - maybe not.
Now I don’t know about you but all of this is a fantastic reason never ever to dip my big toe into the sea again, not even when a wave gently washes up on the sandy shore. There may not be a fridge-sized leviathan in the water, but there may be a tiny little invisible irukandji waiting to kill me.
The sea is their domain. Leave them alone, I say. And if you must head to the beach, don’t forget your vinegar and personal army of paramedics and life guards.