How to Survive a Jellyfish Attack

Before then, I hadn’t considered that there might be jellyfish in our bay. We had surfed there nearly every day since we arrived, and no one had seen one or talked about them.

But there I was, paddling out, and I felt a sting. I pulled my right arm from the water and a blue string hung from my wrist to my elbow. Was it just a string from someone’s bathing suit or something? Then why did it hurt? I spotted a small translucent sac at the top—could it be a jellyfish? But it didn’t look like a jellyfish; it was just a string with a tiny blob on top. Where were the jellyfish’s signature umbrella-like bell and all the other tentacles?

I tugged the string off just as a wave came and, as I was now distracted, knocked me off my surfboard, which the whatever-it-was then landed on. Not wanting to take any chances with touching it again, I waited for the next wave to push it off my board. With the offending item gone, I decided to keep surfing.

The current was strong that day and I had already had trouble getting out to the good waves. Now I had the extra issue of an arm that was, for some reason, tingling. I had been checking for bumps or red marks or any sign that it might have been a jellyfish, but there was nothing, so there was no reason to get out of the water.

My brother came over and asked me how things were going. I told him about the blue string and the weird feeling on my arm. “But I don’t know what it was because there’s nothing—no marks or anything—on my arm,” I said as I pulled my arm out of the water to show him. But there wasn’t nothing; there were now two straight lines of bumps from my wrist to elbow and my arm was tinged red.

Time to get out of the water.

bluebottle sting on my arm

bluebottle sting on my arm

According to our Google research and a FaceTime with an Australian-Canadian relative (Aussies are great resources for all ocean-related queries), I was stung by an Indo-Pacific Portuguese man-o’-war—which, technically, is not a jellyfish. Known as ‘ili mane‘o, palalia, or pa’imalau in Hawaiian and commonly called bluebottles, these “siphonophores” don’t have the same bell tops that you might envision when you think of jellyfish. Instead, their float is a little crescent- or pear-shaped sac with a ridge along the top that acts like a sail, and these free-floating organisms basically just drift where the wind blows them. They are commonly found in Hawaiian and Australian waters, particularly eight to 10 days after a full moon, and are responsible for tens-of-thousands of stings each year in Australia.

To care for a bluebottle sting

  • rinse the affected area with sea water and, if necessary, gently remove any remaining parts of the bluebottle with tweezers
  • hop in a (comfortably) hot shower for twenty minutes (the New Zealand Ministry of Health recommends 45 degrees Celsius /113 degrees Fahrenheit)

I’m no medical professional, but this worked for me. (The Waikiki Aquarium suggests using ice for pain control, though the New Zealand Ministry of Health warns against using cool compresses for bluebottle stings. I found the hot shower worked well, so I followed the latter’s advice by default.)

But, as bluebottles are not jellies, caring for my sting is a little different than what is recommended for other stings.

To care for a jellyfish sting, according to the New Zealand Ministry of Health

  • soak a towel or wet sand in sea water and apply it to the affected area, and don’t try to pick off any remaining tentacles
  • pour warm sea water (not fresh water, which will actually activate the stingers) or vinegar—the use of vinegar is disputed by some, like the British NHS—over the infected area (FYI urine, they say, is “better than nothing!” though that, too, is disputed)
  • wait five minutes then, with a dry towel, gently wipe off any tentacles
  • apply a cool compress to the affected skin
  • elevate the affected area for 24 hours

Immediately after my hot shower, the pain subsided. I had a thin line of red beads down my forearm for a few days, but that quietly disappeared. I survived my (first?) bluebottle not-a-real-jellyfish attack.

Time to get back in the water. 

"Warning: Man-o-War" sign at Hanauma Bay

"Warning: Man-o-War" sign at Hanauma Bay