A Portuguese man-of-war is actually a colony of individual organisms called polyps. Photograph by Mike Theiss, National Geographic Creative
On a stormy summer day I stood in front of Bellairs Research Institute watching waves pound the west coast beaches of Barbados, unaware that on that day I would meet my first Portuguese Man-of-war, and risk my life to save a friend.
Physalia Physalis, Portuguese Man-of-War, also known as the ‘blue-bottle”, or “floating terror” – looks like a jellyfish, stings like a jellyfish, but isn’t a jellyfish.
A jellyfish is one individual. Man-of-War – a hydrozoan – is a community of four separate beings or chambers. One for a sail or bladder to catch the wind. A second with tentacles to trap tiny animals, a third for digestion and the fourth to perpetuate the species.
Named after an eighteenth century Portuguese warship – we see the Man-of-War as an alien life form armed with stinging tentacles – a threat.
Yet most Man-of-War live in peace far from shore, until a storm brings the hydrozoan close to land where encounters with our species are more likely and the Man-of-War’s tentacles can entangle a human diver or swimmer, leaving painful welts that last for days – although rarely cause death.
Twice my height of 5’6″ the waves crashed over South Bellairs Reef. Deep rollers, birthed near the top of the island from tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic.
No sampling today, again. Work can’t be done when you your fingers disappear five inches from your face in the water.
Debbie, a fellow graduate student at the Institute, dive buddy and close friend, joined me on the beach.
Together, we watched the waves crest and crash on the empty sand in front of Coral Reef and Colony Club Hotels, north of the Institute.
Debbie, Trinidadian by birth, looked up at me through dark curls that draped her face, and said, “Looks like the waves are dropping a bit…want a swim?”
“Sounds great!” I said.
Ten minutes and we were swim ready. Towels thrown on the beach in front of Colony Club Hotel, we raced and dove into the water. Waves pulled us out then pushed us to shore. Flattened us against the sand, then sucked us out again. Ten minutes and we were a hundred feet from shore. Laughing we didn’t notice.
Twenty-five feet separated us, when I heard a scream. I stopped swimming. Craned over the waves. No dark head. No Debbie. Another scream. Long. High-pitched.
“Help!” I heard to my left. I saw her. One arm high in the air. Her face twisted in agony.
I reached her, “What’s wrong?”
“Physalia” her voice sharp through clenched teeth.
“Oh God,” I said, and waited for the pain, while I searched for what I dreaded. Yup! there it was. To my right riding in the valley between the waves, no more than that five feet from us, the six-inch diameter turquoise bladder of a Portuguese Man-of-War. A big one.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said.
Debbie, her mouth half full of Caribbean Sea spurted,”Can’t move my left arm. My side’s going numb. Can’t swim.”
Just when I think I escaped, needles of pain lanced across my legs and back. The hundred feet of tentacles found me. Each strand full with stinging cells, nematocysts – useful to the animal in the open sea, but deadly to swimmers near shore.
Debbie’s eyes closed. Her head disappeared under. Tiny. Not even tall enough to reach my shoulders, Debbie was more susceptible to the venom than I.
I stretched toward her, ignoring the strand of blue wound around my arm and caught Debbie around the chest. On her back I towed her, rescue diver-like toward shore. The bladder of the Portuguese Man-or-War followed – tangled by its tentacles around us. It’s fate tied to ours.
The shore appeared no closer after five minutes of hard back stroke. We were caught in a riptide.
My right arm around Debbie’s chest numbed, the venom acting. After only five minutes. What would it feel like in ten?
Kicking hard I swam parallel to shore, parallel to the rip. The seaward pull eased.
My feet hit coral rock, then sand. Up the slope pulling Debbie with me, I reached the beach and collapsed. Bellairs and help were a hundred feet or more away. But I knew I can’t carry my friend. The searing pain across my back made that impossible.
Debbie moaned. Her eyes open.
I asked,”Can you walk? We need to get you to help fast.”
She nodded. Her legs free of stings still worked. We stumbled together to the Institute.
Twenty minutes later Anita, Bellairs’ cook, and now nurse, straightened from her chore, “Debbie finished. She be Ok, just need to sleep,” she said, cotton ball soaked in ammonia from the lab pinched in her fingers, “your turn.”
Neutralizing nematocysts with ammonia or acetic acid (vinegar) is the civilized way. I’ve heard stories that if you pee on the stings it also works. But being female I lack the aim.
Dragging Debbie through the water had wrapped ropes of tentacles around my back and neck, leaving a barbed wire-like pattern between my shoulders. The pain would last for more than a week, but I had lived.
But not so, the Portuguese Man of War. I found its bladder up on the beach, baking in the sun, far from freedom. It’s tentacles still active even in death. The only reminder of its spent life.
Fear experienced at twenty-four turned to regret in recollection of the incident. Now years later, writing about it has intensified my desire to protect all the other life forms that share our planet with us. Even ones that sting.
Have you ever come across a Portuguese Man-of War – or even got stung by one? Write and tell me.
THE FISH DOCTOR IS IN.
To see its beauty visit:http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/features/2014/08/140821-portuguese-man-of-war-animal-ocean-science-pictures/