The Science of Surf Remedies: Jellyfish

Bondi Beach Lifeguard Terry McDermott on riding out the sting

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.

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