Portuguese man-of-war (and their stings) return
By David Fleshler, Sun
7:37 p.m. EST, February 3, 2014
Come to South Florida and experience the sun,
the surf, the venomous tentacles of the Portuguese man-of-war.
It's the season for stinging blobs that
resemble jellyfish to wash ashore, and purple warning flags were flying Monday
at beaches in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
The Portuguese man-of-war tends to be found
off South Florida from late fall to early spring, said Charles Messing,
professor at Nova Southeastern University's
Oceanographic Center. When winds blow strongly toward shore, as they have in
the past few days, the beaches become littered with the translucent gas
bladders that are their most prominent feature (until they sting you).
Breck Ballou, chief of Fort Lauderdale Ocean Rescue, said there
are thousands of stings a year in his city and sometimes 100 in a single day.
"If they get stung, nine times out of 10
it's very minor," he said. "We ask if they're allergic to bees — that's the first question (since it may
indicate a bad reaction to a man-of-war sting.) More often than not, it's just
a little sting. If they have a severe reaction, we'll call Fire Rescue."
Although often mistaken for a jellyfish, the
Portuguese man-of-war is a different thing entirely. To begin with, it's not a
single creature but a cluster of separate animals that have evolved a division
of labor, Messing said.
"The Portuguese man o' war is actually a
floating colony of polyps — the balloon, some polyps for stinging, some for
digestion," he said. "It's more closely related to fire corals and
the freshwater hydra than to true jellies."
In Boca Raton,
lifeguards treat stings by using Popsicle sticks to scrape the barbs off the
skin and rinse the wound with salt water because fresh water causes the release
of more venom, said Ocean Rescue Lt. Patrick "Squid" McGlamery. On
rare occasions, medical attention is required, such as if the pain travels up
the arm to the armpit or up the leg to the groin or if the victim feels ill, he
He recommended swimmers keep to shallow water
when the warning flags are up and stay out altogether if they're allergic to
There are a couple of particularly nasty
qualities to know about. The Portuguese man-of-war can break apart in choppy
water, with its tentacles floating free, virtually invisible but
all-too-easy to feel if they sting you, according to McGlamery. He said the
water Monday was rough enough to generate this phenomenon.
And that interesting-looking dead Portuguese
man-of-war on the beach can still sting, so you probably don't want to touch
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