The Science of Surf Remedies: Jellyfish

Bondi Beach Lifeguard Terry McDermott on riding out the sting

| posted on March 15, 2012

An anatomical sketch of the Bluebottle, or Portuguese Man-of-War. Illustration by Todd Prodanovich

For our April issue, themed “The Science of Surf,” we tackled complex topics such as technique, genealogy, bathymetry, wave pools, hydrodynamics, and stoke. As a supplement to the issue, we have consulted experts in the field on how to handle some of surfing’s unpleasant side effects in our Science of Surf Remedies. For more on the science of surf, check out our April issue, available on newsstands now.

Chapter 3 — Jellyfish (subphylum Medusozoa)

For a creature that is only 5 percent solid matter and doesn’t have a brain, jellyfish still manage keep surfers on edge. In our research into the science behind their remedy we found that…well, it depends. There are close to 200 species of jellyfish in the world, each with their own flavor of venom, each with their own recommended treatment.

So don’t let this be an end-all resource for How To Survive a Jellyfish Sting, but rather a testimonial about treatment of non-tropical jellyfish encounters.

Terry McDermott, a veteran Australian lifeguard, said they sometimes deal with hundreds of stings in one day at Bondi Beach in Sydney, and thousands in a season. “There are several creatures that sting along Australia’s east coast, and Bondi faces south so an onshore wind blows Bluebottles in, also known as Portuguese Man-of-War.” This species of jelly is similar to the type you’ll find in more moderate temperatures of water, like on the east and west coast of the U.S.

“I’ve seen several very bad stings over the years, from stingers wrapped around a guys neck where the swelling nearly stopped breathing, to leg stings and bad welts.” McDermott views the pain as superficial, and says he doesn’t usually take the time to console. “Most people have to just tough it out and ride out the sting,” he said via email, most likely while shaving with his hunting knife.

He laid out the treatment plan plain and simple: “Stay calm. Remove the stingers without tearing away at the string. Keep your pulse low, and rinse off in a hot shower. Hot water neutralizes further toxins entering your system, and staying calm slows those toxins down.” One of the biggest misconceptions is that vinegar and other homeopathic remedies are par for the course, but the conclusion from the Bondi waterfront is that these solutions exacerbate the pain, and cause more stingers to fire. McDermott labeled them generally ineffective, and an overall waste of money.

With so many species and potential scenarios surrounding these alien-like invertebrates, there are myths aplenty about jellyfish, McDermott added. Among them is the infamous question of whether to pee or not to pee. The varying acidity of human urine is so wildly subjective, that no matter the species, there’s no rational reason to let your friend pee on you. Unless you’re into that sort of thing.

When someone gets hit by a jellyfish, as long as the stingers are still in the victim, they’ll continue to release venom, whether they’re still attached to the body of the jellyfish or not. Removing the stingers can be done with a shell’s edge or a credit card, but must be done gently to avoid reactivating them. It’s important to avoid removing the stingers with your fingertips, because they’ll continue to release venom upon additional skin contact. As with most wounds, continued cleaning and the use of ice will fight infection and reduce swelling, limiting time spent out of the water while recovering.

Again, this remedy doesn’t ring true for all species of jellies. The box jellyfish, for example, which is found in tropical water habitats like Indonesia, releases a lethal type of venom that should be treated with vinegar, according to Surf Life Saving Australia’s standards. Jellyfish venoms vary, and their treatments naturally follow suit. As a surfer, the science to surviving a jellyfish sting lies in awareness and a solid preparation for where you’re surfing. A calm reaction to a tentacled attack may be easier said than done, but regardless is key in minimizing the pain and facilitating proper treatment, whether from locals or the lifeguards.

Up next: Treating reef rash with SurfAid International founder Dr. Dave Jenkins

Post-rain surfing with with San Diego environmentalist Paloma Aguirre
Stingray survival with Huntington Beach Lifeguard Teag Turner

  • Paul mcneil

    That’s it? Hot water. ?
    After all these years hasn’t the medical proffession got something to say.?

  • Rick Novak

    Bluebottles can be fatal too, if someone has an allergic reaction to them, just like bees, scorpions, etc. At Cannons in Mexico, a friend of mine duck-dived into a huge glob of dead bluebottles and came up covered with the blue slime. He went to the beach screaming in agony, where I helped him get most of it off using wet sand. In the process I got a bunch on me too, but wasn’t nearly as bad off as he was.
    I was giving him shit for being a wuss, but then he started to go into shock and was have trouble breathing. So I drove him to a nearby military hospital where they gave him a shot of antihistamine and ice-packs. He was fine within minutes, but they said he might have died. For me, just the ice-packs made the pain instantly disappear.
    I’ve carried Benadryl over-the-counter antihistamine tabs in my surf bag ever since.

  • Sundev

    For Man-o-Wars, at least the kind floating around Florida, pour alcohol on it. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but I was down there, got stung and a lifeguard proceeded to douse the sting in alcohol. I was very skeptical at first (being a child of 12 and fully appreciative of alcohol’s affect on cuts), but it worked like a charm. Literally no more sting.

  • Donald Carter

    Damn nature, you scary!

  • Donald Carter

    I always have to Epi-Pens stashed in the car when i go surfing. Not for myself but for anyone else that’s having a bad reaction. Iv seen it go down as described above by Rick many of times down in Ponce Inlet Florida.

  • Derek, Wave Tribe

    Big ups to Nick.

    Benadryl should be part of every surfers travel kit.

  • chris

    Just pee on it! seriously this works. I can’t believe there isn’t a better scientific explanation on this. I’ve had multiple jellyfish stings and urine is the only thing that instantly helped. Maybe it’s just because urine is basically warm water, which isn’t always easy to come by if your traveling in a third world country.

  • RayG

    I will usually just grab a handful of wet sand and, while still in the water, rub vigorously on the sting area. gone. Works for most jellies in the NE. It worked somewhat for that little nasty bugger in the DR. Had the tentacles wrap around my wrist and it felt like I had been sliced with a red hot blade. Rubbing sand eased it a bit but it throbbed for 2-3 days.

  • Bernie

    @Rick Novak,

    Wow that is an amazing story. From now on. I’m bring Benadryl, alcohol and a bottle of vinegar. I hear vinegar is also good.

  • Stefanie

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  • Abigail

    Wow. I’m the first comment