Dangerous Portuguese man-of-war hits the beaches of Florida, South Carolina


As spring break revelers flocked to the beaches of South Florida and South Carolina recently, so did the dangerous Portuguese man-of-war. Purple flags flew over the beaches of Treasure Coast, South Florida and South Carolina, indicating dangerous marine life in the water.

Lifeguards raised the purple flag on beaches earlier this year to warn of Portuguese men-of-war.

Related to a jellyfish, the Portuguese man-of-war fires poisonous spikes when something grazes its tentacles. The cells are still firing even if the animal is dead and washed ashore.

“These animals are some of the most venomous animals on earth,” said Tony McEwan, curator and marine biologist at the University of Hawaii’s Waikiki Aquarium. “They are not very agile animals, so their prey must be immobilized very quickly.”

Tentacle marks from a bubble/float with a sail. The animal was so named because it looked like an 18th-century Portuguese warship under sail.

The Portuguese warship was a problem on the east coast.
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The float can be wispy blue, pink or purple up to 6 inches long and sits 6 inches above the waterline. They look pretty but don’t touch.

“The Portuguese man-of-war won’t kill you, but it will be painful, and it will be uncomfortable and very itchy for a while,” McEwan said, then adding that the toxin could be fatal to someone with an allergy. “Then slowly, slowly it dissolves.”

Venomous barbs paralyze a fish that brushes against the tentacles. The man of war then draws the fish into his stomach.

McEwan recommends staying out of the water when men of war are present. Consider wearing shoes when going to the beach. The tentacles extend well beyond the swimmer, usually up to 3 feet, but can grow up to 100 feet in length, according to NOAA. Also, keep them away from dogs’ inquisitive noses and tongues.

What to do if you get stung

“The consensus is that the best way to treat it is to do a few things,” said Daniel Sasson, a research scientist at the Marine Resources Research Institute in Charleston, South Carolina.

  • Spraying or pouring vinegar on the wound or stabbed area will help deactivate the active fire cells.
  • Scrape the skin with a credit card. It removes stinging cells that have not yet fired.
  • Soak affected skin in warm, almost hot water. The heat helps destroy cnidarian cells that have not yet fired.
  • Try antihistamines for the itch.

How do you end up on the beach?

The species is completely dependent on wind and currents, they cannot move. Strong onshore winds and hurricane-like storms blow marine life onto the beach. The species typically live in groups of up to 1,000 or more, according to NOAA.

They prefer tropical and subtropical waters but are found in almost all oceans.

The Portuguese war jellyfish
The Portuguese warship uses wind and currents to move.
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A man of war is actually a group of animals working together. Imagine a colony of bees, each member has their own task.

“They’re really thousands of individual animals that make up this one thing,” Sasson explained. “You have a few groups of these animals working together to make the float. Some of them are the defensive ones, the ones that actually have the stabbing cells in them. Others are used for digestion for the intestines. And then you have some that are used for reproduction.”

Remember these amazing creatures are better enjoyed from a distance.

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