Jellyfish, the Jello with Tentacles

Published by Chris Harvey October 20, 2005

David Keeling
Copyright 2000, RPK&A, Inc

The first few days at the beach were fine–near perfect, even; the Atlantic, in contrast to previous years, reached and maintained swimmably warm temperatures, while a sweet sea breeze onshore beveled the dunes and cooled the streets at night. We awoke to skies marred only by the occasional mare’s tail cloud, and even the Panowski children next door proved as docile, if not as attractive, as lap-dogs on horse tranquilizers.

Granted, this last item incited some concern from friends and neighbors alike, but, in conjunction with the peculiarly vacant expressions of Mr. and Mrs. Panowski themselves, ultimately we chalked up their sedation to a combination of genetics and, speculatively, a family-sized Valium intake. Satisfied with our conjectures, we took up umbrella and beach chair, towel and sunscreen, and flip-flopped triumphantly toward the beach.

There, we established a home-base of glaringly bright beach towels, and immersed ourselves in the pleasures of ultraviolet radiation beating down on bathing suits, bare flesh, coconut oil, and disintegrated rock.

But chafing was the least of our problems. Having sighted the rolling ocean and smelled the heady brine, my sisters and I couldn’t resist the sea’s primordial beckoning and, therefore, dashed towards it with all the speed and elegance of particularly enthusiastic (if flightless and perhaps slightly injured) sand pipers. It didn’t occur to us to question why no one else had entered the water, and we ascribed the stares we received from others on the beach to disdain and/or envy for our youthful health and exuberance.

When, after only a minute in the water, my sister screamed, we were forced to regroup and reevaluate. Which entailed, roughly, a not entirely orderly, well-orchestrated, or quiet retreat from the surf. Back on the sand, we discovered the problem: jellyfish. Hundreds of jellyfish, actually, clotting each wave in a flotilla of limp, translucent flesh streaked with red and brown. It was like the horror-movie version of Grandma’s lovingly crafted Thanksgiving jello.

Jello, that is, with tentacles outfitted in stinging cells called nematocysts–prime examples of which were colorfully wrapped around my sister’s leg. She revealed what can only be called a surprisingly developed and mature vocabulary for her years as my father endeavored to remove the overzealous creature from her skin, leaving behind a red trail of fiery pain.

She wasn’t in any life-threatening danger, but we decided to take her to a local emergency room to make sure that there were no terrible side-effects awaiting her, up to and including possible amputation, which my other sister unrealistically, unhelpfully, but quite happily suggested.

In the end, we returned to the blank smiles of the Panowskis with my sister’s limbs intact and a fuller knowledge of the sea-going menace called “jellyfish.” A few basic steps, we learned, can help reduce the pain it exacts on countless innocent ocean-goers every year.

Treatment for a Sting:

Get the victim out of the water; a serious sting can cause drowning through its agonizing side-effects.
Carefully remove that nasty tentacle with sand, fabric, seaweed, or some other readily available material. While it’s on the skin, it’ll continue to sting, so remove it as quickly as possible.
Vinegar has been shown to help reduce the effects of jellyfish stings. More to the point, acetic acid has, and household vinegar is a five percent acetic-acid solution, so rinsing the wound with it often helps.
Swelling and intense pain are neither comfortable nor healthy symptoms. If they occur, seeking prompt medical attention is not a bad impulse.
Big, ugly welts from a particularly bad brawl with a jellyfish sometimes require treatment with steroid creams or antihistamines.
Note: Do NOT, in any circumstances, urinate on a jellyfish sting. This may sound like a stupid, unintuitive, and unhealthy thing to do, but you wouldn’t believe how many people are ready to whip it out and piss all over any kind of flesh wound these days. Urban legend has it that this procedure helps. It doesn’t; in some cases, it can actually further inflame the wound.

Sting Prevention and Facts:

Occasionally, jellyfish capable of severe stings hang out in waters along the eastern coast of the Americas between the Tropics, including the waters around many Caribbean islands. Serious stings from such gelatinous, floating pain centers have also been reported from beaches in Puerto Rico during the summer months.
Florida is well-known as something of a popular spot for jellyfish conferences, retreats, spring training, etc., as is the southeastern coast of the U.S. in general. Be especially careful if you plan on swimming in those areas.
Some jellyfish have tentacles that trail far from the body; often, these are easy to get tangled up in and can carry a severe sting. If you see one coming, get out of the way.
The saying “the only good jellyfish is a dead jellyfish” doesn’t apply here; a dead jellyfish can still sting. After heavy storms, watch out for the damaged remnants of tentacles–they can hurt as well.
Wetsuits protect against most jellyfish contact.

References

Fenner, Peter J. and John A. Williamson. “Worldwide deaths and severe envenomation from jellyfish stings.” The Medical Journal of Australia. 1996; 165: 658.

Marine Resources Division, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. “Jellyfish.” Accessed July 14, 2000. http://www.dnr.state.sc.us/marine/pub/seascience/jellyfi.html

Squires, Sally. “Jellyfish: The Stings and Bites of Summer.” University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES), Chesapeake Biological Laboratory (CBL). Accessed July 14, 2000. http://www.cbl.umces.edu/Archive/archive-jellyfish-2.html July 14, 2000

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