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Things that Hurt on the Reef

SEA ANEMONES

These flower-like coelenterates have thousands of tiny stinging cells on their numerous tentacles that can be quite dangerous, causing pain and incapacity. Fortunately most of them have nematocysts that are too weak to penetrate human skin. The initial symptoms vary from a prickly sensation to severe pain. The area can become red and swollen and blisters can appear.

The more dangerous anemones can cause shock and respiratory distress. Treatment is basically the same as for Jellyfish. If you can’t tell the dangerous ones - just don’t touch any of them. In Samoa, one species Rhodactis howesü is cooked and eaten as food, but if eaten in the uncooked state it causes a prolonged stupor, and occasionally has been used for suicidal purposes. It was said in the early days the Hawaiians smeared the blades of their spears with anemones to make the wounds fatal.

HYDROIDS

Fern like colonies occurring in clumps, two of the more common are the Cypress Sea Fern, Agtaophenia cupressina and the White-Stinging Sea Fern, Lytocarpus philippinus. They generally have delicate fronds with rows of tiny polyps along each ´limb´. The slightest brush against a hydroid causes instantaneous pain and quite often the diver is not aware what produced the painful stinging feeling. The sting starts out as a patchy area of red skin and can develop into weals within 30 minutes. The affected area may take up to a month to heal. All manner of treatment has been advised such as: Vinegar, Calamine Lotion, ice packs, alcohol (externally!), etc. Local anesthetic ointment is effective as a pain reliever. Best idea is not to touch.

JELLY FISH

Currents, winds or the tidal flow conveys these slow-moving coelenterates along. Some even have the capability to swim slowly in a rhythmic, pulsating movement. Sometimes they appear in great masses and are at times hard to avoid. One of the features of a jellyfish is the presence of tentacles, all of which are equipped with nematocysts, or stinging cells. Many of which can inflict painful stings and cause welts on the body. There are several species that are very dangerous. Contact with their tentacles can cause severe burning, scarring of the skin, shock and paralysis of the breathing system. I was once hit in the face when snorkeling off Sydney by a Bluebottle (Portuguese Man-of-war) and within minutes my face started to swell up and I eventually had difficulty seeing and the pain was intense. After a couple of hours the swelling subsided, but it was itchy and uncomfortable for a couple of days.

The Box Jelly, Chironex fleckeri is the most dangerous, deaths have occurred within minutes. It can cause abnormal heart rhythms, breathing problems and low blood pressure. They are seldom seen by the victim who is hit with excruciating pain on initial contact. They become confused, and may lose consciousness and at times drown. Some have died despite prompt resuscitation techniques.

The most effective treatment for general jellyfish stings is to douse the area with vinegar to stop further discharge of the nematocysts. Remove the tentacles as quickly as possible - do not spread the nematocysts by rubbing with hands, wet sand, seaweed, paper, etc. No water - fresh or salt should be allowed to touch the skin until the vinegar has been applied. The patient should not bathe for a few hours. Try to remove by easing them off in one direction only. If vinegar is not available try a local anesthetic ointment or spray. Do not use alcohol as it can cause some nematocyst to discharge. Meat tenderizer or papaya fruit may be helpful. Another alternative is a paste made of baking soda and water. If serious, resuscitation may be required. Seek medical advice. Various ointments are available for less serious cases. Box Jellyfish Antivenom has been developed by the Australian Commonwealth Serum Laboratories. Wherever Chironex is found some form of body protection should be used - wetsuits, Lycra suits, body stockings made from panty hose or overalls.

STARFISH

One very dangerous starfish is Acanathaster planci, the Crown of Thorns starfish. This creature is easily recognized by its large size, sometimes over 16" in diameter. Its colour is reddish or greenish, has more than a dozen arms, which are covered in short, shark spines which will penetrate gloves, boots and wetsuits. I can attest to this! The spines are covered with toxic slime. Injury by the spines causes severe pain and nausea. And the pain can persist for days. Immersing the spiked area in HOT water can reduce the pain. Having been spiked in the foot during a filming assignment I can state that the pain was excruciating, a local anaesthetic helped, but best of all keeping my foot in a bucket of constantly replenished HOT water worked wonders. Medical attention is usually required.

The Mosaic Sea Star, Plectaster decanus is another to be wary of. It can cause a skin rash if handle by bare hands. Another species, the Chain-Link Brittle Star, Ophiomastix annufosa has been reported to have caused deaths in small animals so therefore it is suggested that one makes sure, if handled, that the mucus from this sea star does not come in contact with one’s mouth or eyes.


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