You’re happily taking a walk across a picturesque beach on a sun-soaked summer’s day when you stumble across what looks like a jellyfish. But on closer inspection you realise that it’s a lot more unusual than your average stinging sea creature. By this point, it’s probably wise that you test your sand-running skills.
The creature’s most distinctive feature is its uppermost polyp, a balloon-esque float which is typically either violet, pink or blue. This can extend to roughly half a foot above the water’s surface. Down below, it has a number of polyps and tentacles which can extend to an astonishing 100 feet.
This quirky-looking creature is largely found in subtropical and tropical seas. However, as they are propelled by ocean currents and winds, examples can often be spotted in places you might not expect. For instance, in October 2019 a number were reported to have been washed up on beaches across the English county of Hampshire.
The animal is said to resemble a Portuguese warship from the 1700s under full sail, which explains the origin of its name. Indeed, the sea critter is known as the Portuguese man o’ war. And although the jellyfish-like creature looks like one single entity, it’s actually a genetically-identical colony.
Yes, the Portuguese man o’ war is classed as a siphonophore. This is the word given to a group of individual zooids that are capable of replicating themselves hundreds and sometimes thousands of times over. These clones then string together to form one large extended body. And they all have their part to play.
Indeed, each and every one of the Portuguese man o’ war’s four polyps serve a distinct purpose. These include feeding, floating, capturing prey and reproducing. However, the sea creature, which is also known as a bluebottle due to its prevailing color, isn’t the most active when it comes to traveling.
Indeed, with no way of propelling itself, the Portuguese man o’ war must rely on the wind or the sea’s current to drift itself along. However, it does have at least one impressive physical attribute. The creature can deflate its balloon-like polyp and submerge itself under water as a means of protection from predators on the surface.
And its number one predator is another sea creature that could give it a run for money in the weirdness stakes. As its name suggests, the violet sea snail is a colorful critter with a unique way of ensuring it stays on top of the ocean surface. It essentially constructs its own bubble raft.
But it’s not just the resourceful violet sea snails of which the Portuguese man o’ war has to be careful in the ocean waters. Several other species are also known for feasting on gelatinous siphonophores. These include loggerhead sea turtles and ocean sunfish, the latter of which looks almost as unusual.
One of the man o’ war’s most interesting predators is the blue dragon sea slug. As well as consuming the sea critter, this particular species also harvests and acquires its toxins. By using its skin to store these stinging cells, the blue dragon can increase its chances of fending off its very own predators.
But there is one species that the man o’ war doesn’t have to worry about – us humans. The critter isn’t considered commercially valuable and so isn’t hunted in the same way as so many other sea creatures. Thanks to changes in the open ocean food chain, the man o’ war population is actually thriving in the 21st century.
The colorful Portuguese man o’ war, known for getting caught in seaweed mats, may be easy to spot in the ocean waters. But it is not quite as eye-catching once it washes up on shore. Indeed, it loses most of its red, blue or purple pigment once stranded.
And if you’re wondering how exactly the man o’ war reproduces, wonder no more. The critter adopts the broadcast spawning method which involves several big groups. Here, both the male and female release their sperm and eggs, respectively, at the same time to help boost the chances of the latter being fertilized.
Of course, this quirky-looking sea creature isn’t the only one you need to avoid during a trip to the beach. In fact, a day out making sandcastles and splashing about in the sea could soon end with a visit to the nearest clinic if you’re not careful. And such dangers come in all shapes and sizes.
The most common cause of injury via sea life occurs due to the pesky jellyfish. Often found along the seashore, the tentacles from these much-more-familiar squishy creatures can result in a painful sting. And remarkably, they can be just as poisonous when they are dead as they are alive.
As well as being careful to avoid any jellyfish during your stroll along the shore, you should also look out for the equally troublesome sea urchin. This creature is usually found near coral reefs in subtropical areas and rocky shorelines. And when the human skin is penetrated by its spine, the wound it inflicts is a decidedly nasty one.
Then there’s the lionfish, whose aesthetic appeal hides a typically more dangerous sting than either the jellyfish or sea urchin. Normally found along the Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast, and in the Caribbean, its venomous sting can result in sweating, respiratory problems and intense pain. In some cases, it can even cause paralysis.
Also common along the Gulf of Mexico and in the Caribbean, as well as off the south-east United States and in the mid-Atlantic, is the stingray. This creature isn’t particularly aggressive but its tactics can be very sneaky. By sinking to the bottom of the seabed and covering sand over its entire body, it is able to prey on shellfish, tiny fish and the feet of any unfortunate individuals passing by.
Steven Spielberg’s Jaws movie may have once made many of us scared to ever step foot on a beach again. But shark attacks aren’t exactly a common occurrence. However, if you still feel the need to reduce the risk of a shark bite, then you should avoid the sea during their most active times – dawn and dusk. Anyone with open wounds would also be advised to give swimming a miss.
The Portuguese man o’ war might not be as well-known as these sea critters. But it can cause just as many problems. Indeed, its tentacles, capable of extending up to 165 feet, are normally reserved for paralyzing their small fish prey. However, they can also be used to sting any human that happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
So what exactly happens if you’re unlucky enough to be stung by one of these weird-looking creatures? Well, the man o’ war’s tentacles will leave your skin with an extended crimson temporary scar which can last for several hours. You should also expect swelling in the affected area and to feel a burning pain.
Things can get even worse, too. You may be left with a rash that comes and goes for at least a month. Other side-effects from a man o’ war sting can include feeling weak, cramps, dizziness, diarrhea, sweating and being physically sick. Luckily, many of these can be treated using over-the-counter medication.
Benzocaine and hydrocortisone can help ease local pain and itching, while oral antihistamines can be used to help with the latter problem, too. You can also take ibuprofen to reduce any swelling. But, of course, you should always check if such medicines are suitable to take if you have any other underlying conditions.
In addition, Minnesota health organization Fairview also advises on how you can treat any man o’ war injury in the immediate aftermath. Firstly, you should use saltwater to rinse the affected area. If you happen to have any type of concentrated vinegar solution to hand, then you can also apply it to the wound.
This solution will help to both make the stingers inactive and stop any more toxins from being released. You should then try and get rid of the tentacles with a gloved hand before bathing the area for another 20 minutes in saltwater. And, of course, if the reaction is more severe then you should seek medical assistance immediately.
Specifically, you should call the emergency services straight away if you experience chest pains and shortness of breath. You should contact your healthcare provider if any of your symptoms worsen, your urine turns red or pink or your rash increases in redness or pain. If your temperature reaches 100.4°F or beyond then you should also seek medical help.
Fairview also gives out tips to help further treat the man o’ war sting when you get home. Once any tentacles have been removed, victims should place an ice pack over the affected area for at least 20 minutes. This step should be repeated every couple of hours over the first day.
Over the next few days this ice pack procedure should be followed three to four times every day. If you haven’t got an ice pack to hand, then simply seal a number of ice cubes in a plastic bag. Then use a thin and clean cloth or towel to wrap the bag up, as an ice pack should never be placed on the skin directly.
Fairview also advises on how you can reduce the risk of getting stung by a Portuguese man o’ war in the first place. Swimmers are advised to check out any beach reports from the local area before taking a dip in the ocean. If the creatures do happen to be present, then you should refrain from going into the water.
And if you are unlucky enough to come across one during your trip to the beach, then whatever you do don’t let your intrigue get the better of you. Definitely avoid touching it. And just like the more common jellyfish, even if the creature happens to have died, it can still produce a dangerous sting.
But how exactly do Portuguese man o’ wars deliver such a dangerous sting? Well, their tentacles contain microscopic capsules called nematocysts. And these are filled with coiled tubes that can unleash a deadly and paralyzing venom on crustaceans and small fish and cause a whole lot of pain for humans, too.
Although the man o’ war’s sting is easily treatable in the majority of cases, there have been a few examples where it’s resulted in death. In 1987 one of its victims got a little too close to one in eastern Florida and lost their life due to a cardiovascular collapse. A woman who was stung by the creature while swimming in Sardinia also passed away from anaphylactic shock.
Thankfully no-one died during one of the most numerically large incidents involving the creatures in recent times. But it still left an astonishing number of people needing treatment from nearby lifeguards patrolling the beaches of Hollywood, Florida on a single day in 2018. Indeed, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel newspaper reported that 204 individuals, mainly tourists, were stung.
Two people who know all about how painful the man o’ war sting can be are Blue Planet II cameramen Andrea Casini and Rafa Herrero. The pair covered themselves from head to toe in Vaseline for protection while filming the critters for the TV documentary for three months in the Canary Islands. But they were still stung on the free hand they needed to operate the camera.
In a BBC interview, Casini said, “Once you get stung, you start to feel your heart beating really fast; you’ve got to get out of the water and head eight miles back to shore. The tentacles stick to your skin, so you have to scrape them off, and remove the stinging cells carefully and all the time they are releasing more venom. The pain can last for hours and you would do anything to make that pain go away”.
Casini then continued, “After we were stung, we tried everything – hot and cold water, even urinating on the wound, which is thought to be a traditional treatment. But it didn’t work… It was not until we got back to shore and applied cortisone cream that the intense pain subsided”.
Unfortunately, Naomi Mateos, a beachgoer who was stung while enjoying a swim in the seas off the Spanish city Lorca, had a more harrowing experience. Website Murcia Today reported that Mateos became paralyzed after feeling the full force of the man o’ war’s venom just ten meters from shore. “I felt a strong pain in my wrist that went all the way to my back,” she explained.
Mateos inadvertently made things worse when she tried to claw the man o’ war’s tentacles from her skin, stinging her hands in the process. She told local paper La Opinión De Murcia, “I wanted to die. I started screaming like a crazy woman.” Luckily, Mateos’ experienced diver friend came to the rescue, removing the critter and flinging it out of the water.
An army post located nearby initially dealt with Mateos’ injuries before she was transported to a Murcia hospital. And her condition was so severe that it traumatized one of the hospital’s employees. They told website El Español, “The poor woman could not open her eyes, her face was expressionless, but her lips were shivering with pain. After six hours I have not managed to erase that face of pain from my mind.”
Thankfully Mateos eventually began to recover from the ordeal. And she soon shared pictures of her injuries on social media to show her followers exactly what she’d been through. She captioned them, “It was as if I had something injected into my body. I cannot compare this pain to anything.”