Whit Gibbons

Whit Gibbons

From one memorable day during childhood, I vividly recall four colors: pink, blue, white and red. The first three were the last ones I saw before someone pulled me out of the waters of Biloxi Bay in the Gulf of Mexico and carried me across the beach. The red came from the long lines of rope-size welts around my legs and torso. I had been the victim of stings from one of the most bizarre ocean organisms in the world.

I was 6 years old when I walked into the tentacles of a Portuguese man o’ war as it floated on the water’s surface like a toy ship. What child wouldn’t be tempted to walk over to such a prize and touch it. The dangerous sea creature is aptly named. Before Columbus landed in the New World, Portugal was a global sea power in naval warfare and ocean exploration. Portuguese mariners built an enormous warship with tall masts and sails that looked like puffy white clouds. The British called it a man o’ war.

Resembling a distant ship as it drifts silently over the surface of the warm oceans of the world, the Portuguese man o’ war is a gas-filled white float laced with pink and blue. It is not a true jellyfish biologically. But for someone who encounters a Portuguese man o’ war while swimming in the sea, they are functionally similar – they float, and like many jellyfish they have tentacles with stinging cells known as nematocysts that can inject venom into a person who brushes against them.

The scientific name Physalia includes the Portuguese man o’ war found in the Atlantic and the Australian bluebottle of the Indian and Pacific oceans. Both have a float, with tentacles swaying beneath it. Each individual is a complex colony of different organisms that provide different services. The tentacles capture prey. Other components digest what is captured. The man o’ war ships were armed with dozens of cannons that could fire at different levels and in all directions. The arsenal of Physalia is attached to a network of long, ribbonlike filaments beneath the surface, each armed with thousands of nematocysts. The toxic strands dangling from the float can be pulled by underwater currents and stretch more than 30 feet (according to some sources, more than 100 feet) away from the colorful, alluring float.

As if Physalia were not already strange enough, an individual can be right- or left-handed. The float, which serves as a sail, typically curves slightly right or left. When propelled by the wind, the right-handed ones travel in one direction; the left-handed ones go in the opposite direction. If an armada of Physalia is being blown parallel to shore, some travel out to sea, whereas others end up on the beach. Stepping barefoot on tentacles of a Portuguese man o’ war, even after the critter is dead, would be an unpleasant experience.

No effective antidote was known at the time of my encounter with one of these denizens of the deep. According to an article by C. L. Wilcox (University of Hawaii) and associates in the scientific journal Toxin, “There has been much scientific debate about the most appropriate first aid” for stings of Physalia. Earlier folk remedies included baking soda, alcohol and shaving cream. Based on laboratory tests, the researchers concluded that these probably did “more harm than good, potentially turning a mild or moderate sting into a severe one.” However, one old-time remedy turned out to be more effective.

The study determined that “commercially available vinegars … were the most effective rinse solutions, as they irreversibly inhibited” the nematocysts from firing. Diluting vinegar even slightly “reduced the protective effects.” I am not aware of any medical disagreement with the recommendation, and I appreciate a scientific study that provides a practical take-home message for anyone making a trip to the seaside: bring along a bottle of vinegar.

​Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. Send environmental questions to ecoviews@gmail.com.