Sunday, July 12, 2009

Beach Buzz: Watch Out for Portuguese Man O' War "Jellyfish" on the Beaches

-by La Huerita

This is the time of year (late June/early July) when the Agua Mala, aka Portuguese Man O' War, "jellyfish" tend to wash up on the beaches in Puerto Penasco, occasionally by the thousands, littering the sand from Sandy Beach all the way down the coast.

I put "jellyfish" in quotes because they aren't really jellyfish at all, but you can find out more about that a little further down in this post, following some instructions on what to do if you get stung.

A strange half-invisible creature, the Man O' War’s translucent, bluish-purple body sac makes it difficult to see in the water. It has an air bladder (known as the pneumatophore or sail or float) that allows it to float on the surface of the ocean. This sail is translucent and tinged blue, purple or mauve. It lives at the surface of the ocean, with its float above the water, serving as a sail, and the rest of the organism hanging below the surface. The float can be anywhere from a couple of inches up to 12 inches in length, depending on the species, and can rise out of the water as much as 6 inches. Its trailing blue tentacles are often as long as 30 feet or more, and they are poisonous. These creatures are infamous for swarming in huge groups and for their painful stings.

Click on this link to see a short YouTube video of a Man O' War in the water (viewed from below at a safe distance). Note that the creator of this video advises that as a precaution if you are intending to do any swimming during this time it is a good idea to wear a T-Shirt to minimalize the areas in which they can come in contact with your skin.

The Man O' War has no means of self-propulsion, but is moved by a combination of winds, currents and tides. Thus, when they are in the Puerto Penasco area strong breezes directed toward shore, combined with the tides, drive them into the surf and up onto the beaches.

As a general rule of thumb, you can assume that there is never just one Portuguese Man O' War. If you see one, either on the beach or in the water, there are bound to be more. Do not touch them, even if they look dead and all dried up. As residents in the area know, they can still pack quite a wallop because stinging cells may remain active long after the creature has died. Also, because those stinging tentacles are so long, and some of them might be hard to see in the sand, steer well clear of them and wear protective footwear while walking on the beach when they are present.
Research suggests that in the normal course the best treatment for a Portuguese Man O' War sting is:

(a) to avoid any further contact with the Portuguese Man O' War and to carefully remove any remnants of the creature from the skin using an object such as a credit card or some similar thin, rigid object, or even a seashell, to scrape them off. The nematocysts are on all sides of the tentacles, so do not use your hands and do not rub the area. I repeat: Take care not to touch them directly with fingers or any other part of the skin to avoid secondary stinging; then

(b) to apply salt water to the affected area (not fresh water, which tends to make the affected area worse);

If eyes have been affected they should be irrigated with copious amounts of room temperature tap water for at least 15 minutes and if vision blurs, or the eyes continue to tear, hurt, swell, or are light sensitive after irrigating, or there is any concern, a doctor should be seen as soon as possible;

(c) to follow up with the application of hot water (45°C/113°F) to the affected area, which eases the pain of a sting by denaturing the toxins; and finally,

(d) to apply ice, preferably in the form of an icepack as this should be effective at suppressing any swelling and pain through reducing the activity of the toxins and reducing the sensation, and therefore pain, of the area of skin around the ice. Additionally, ice constricts blood vessels, reducing the speed at which the venom travels to other parts of the body.

Do not use vinegar. According to the lifeguards at, although formerly considered effective, vinegar is no longer recommended for Portuguese man-of-war stings. In a laboratory experiment, vinegar dousing caused discharge of nematocysts from the larger (P. physalis) man-of-war species. The effect of vinegar on the nematocysts of the smaller species (which has less severe stings) is mixed: vinegar inhibited some, discharged others. Note, however, that there is conflicting evidence about this, with experts disagreeing vigorously with each other on the subject.

Note also that the placebo effect might come into play with any of the techniques offered here. Except in rare cases, where someone is allergic to the toxin in the sting, the pain usually goes away in 15 to 20 minutes without any treatment, which can lead some to believe a specific product or technique worked when in reality it may have just resolved itself on its own.

Be aware also that after the pain is gone, it is common for welts and/or skin rashes to hang on for minutes to hours, and in exceptional cases for weeks. In their book "All Stings Considered - First Aid and Medical Treatment of Hawai`i's Marine Injuries", Craig Thomas, M.D. and Susan Scott (University of Hawaii Press, 1997)advise the following for rashes from Man O' War stings: "For persistent itching or skin rash, try 1 percent hydrocortisone ointment four times a day, and one or two 25 milligram diphenhydramine (Benadryl) tablets every 6 hours. These drugs are sold without prescription."

Below are two commercially offered brands-- with conflicting points of view about the ingredients of their products-- which claim to relieve symptoms of Man O' War stings:

The makers of Jellyfish Squish(TM), a product developed by J.C. Grayson to reduce the effects of jellyfish stings, claim that an independent study in May 2009 showed the product also works for Portuguese Man O' War stings. Applying Jellyfish Squish(TM) on a Portuguese Man O' War sting paralyzes the unfired nematocysts, preventing them from continuing to fire their toxins. Its ingredients include the maximum amount of lidocaine (a topical anesthetic) allowable without a prescription. You can see their press release here: Popular Jellyfish Sting Treatment Also Proven Effective on Stings From Portuguese Man-of-War

Jellyfish Squish(TM), produced by Coastal Solutions, Inc. in Savannah, Ga., can be purchased online and at select stores including drug stores and beach supply stores.

The makers of StingMate® claim their gel has proven effective against jellyfish stings in the field since its release in July 2008, and they say it is also effective for Man O' War stings. Before they released, they tested their product under the watchful eye of acclaimed jellyfish authority and marine biologist, Chad Widmer ( at a world renowned Pacific Coast Aquarium.

StingMate® neutralizing gel is lidocaine free and contains specific levels of acetic acid and menthol which work by inactivating stinging cells called nematocysts. The menthol provides a cooling sensation for lasting relief for the affected area, small or large, since the patented gel does not run off the body as would plain vinegar. StingMate® is much more convenient and practical than bringing a gallon of vinegar on your beach outing. The gel suspends the stinging cells and allows remaining ones to be simply scraped off the skin with any straight edge card.

StingMate® chose not to have lidocaine as an active ingredient for a number of reasons, and they cited an FDA warning about the potential hazards of improper use of lidocaine. Unfortunately, the link to that warning on their website no longer works, though I did find an FDA warning about the misuse of lidocaine for women about to undergo a mammogram or cosmetic procedures such as laser hair removal, in some cases causing death.

At any rate, both products claim success in treating Man O' War stings, and you can use your own judgment if you choose to use either of them.

The Portuguese Man O' War (Physalia physalis), also known as the blue bubble, blue bottle, man-of-war, or the Portuguese man-of-war, is a jelly-like, marine invertebrate of the family Physaliidae, order Siphonophora, class Hydrozoa, and phylum Cnidaria.

The common name comes from a Portuguese war ship type of the 15th and 16th century, the man-of-war (named caravela-portuguesa in Portuguese, caravel), which had triangular sails similar in outline to the bladder of the Portuguese Man O' War.

They are commonly but erroneously thought of and referred to as a jellyfish. In fact, a Portuguese Man O' War is not a single animal, but rather a siphonophore – a colony of four kinds of minute, highly modified individuals, which are specialized polyps and medusoids. Each such zooid in these pelagic colonial hydroids or hydrozoans has a high degree of specialization and, although structurally similar to other solitary animals, are all attached to each other and physiologically integrated rather than living independently. Such zooids are specialised to such an extent that they lack the structures associated with other functions and are therefore dependent for survival on the others to do what the particular zooid cannot do by itself.

In short, they are very odd creatures!

And that's all the Buzz on the Beach for today.

Peace out...

About Beach Buzz: Not necessarily the news, this is a place for information, opinion, speculation, gossip, tips and other good stuff about Rocky Point, and Mexico in general. Have opinions to air, anecdotes to share, tips or tidbits to contribute? I'd like to hear from you!

Email me: La Huerita

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