Portuguese Man-of-War. A Community Worth Saving.

Portuguese man of war adapt 1900 1
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/

Born to Die: If fish produce millions of eggs – why is there a crisis in the oceans?

PICT0025 The author at 24 in the dry lab. Barbados, WI.

The first time I saw a life begin – was in Barbados.

On that day, rain pounded on the corrugated iron roof above me. Like a Texas cattle stampede, the semi-annual monsoons had pummeled the Lesser Antilles for five days, with no end in site. But I didn’t notice. I was on a mission.

A Masters student in Oceanography. My second year living on the island, working at Bellairs Research Institute of McGill University, I sat on a stool in the dry lab over a microscope. On the microscope stage – a glass petri dish. In the dish, three fish eggs – my crucible of life.

I waited. My dive watch beeped 11:05. Five minutes since I placed the eggs in the dish.

Outside the lab, the gutters thundered with rain roaring through them. The stream of sound called the life in the dish forward.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the orb of light on the stage – where the eggs floated.

Were they be fertilized? Would they divide?

Fresh. Fifteen minutes before, I had plucked them from the Caribbean Sea. My surfboard, net and bucket stood outside the door of the lab.

The eggs had been spawned five hundred feet from where I sat. At the southern most edge of Bellairs reef above my favorite pillar coral, Genus Dendrogyra. One of a few hard corals that feed during the day. It’s tentacles a fine rug of moving threads retracted when you touched them. Then immediately poked out again to feed. I loved to play hide and seek with the coral – but not today.

Above the pillar coral an iridescent bluehead wrasse, a terminal male courted a yellow female. Rising together vent to vent in the water column almost to the surface, they released a stream of eggs and milt. A cloud of pale life hung for a second in the sea.

Then with one swipe it filled my fine aquarium net, with what I hoped would be fertilized eggs. I dumped the contents into a bucket of seawater on the surfboard, and finned hard back to shore.

Dragging the surfboard up the sand trying not spill the contents of the bucket, I ignored the beach vendors’ cries from under the palm trees dripping rain. Their, “Hey missy have a looook. Good t’ings today. Best deal you ever see,” trailed behind me. No time today to look at jewelry – usually tempting for my 24-year-old brain. No – I was on task.

Up the driveway, through the dining hall and kitchen with its scents of Jerk chicken, beans and rice, Anita, the Bellairs’ cook glanced up as I passed the kitchen’s louvered windows. Each day over the past five I’d dashed from lab to sea, and from sea to lab – in the rain. Bajans (the local term for Barbadians) hated rain. I knew Anita thought me crazy, she’d said, “You just one of ‘doz, crazy white girls, who wants to be a doctor of fish. Fancy ‘dat!”

Ignoring Anita’s smirk, I skirted the cats playing in the breezeway, and ran straight to the Dry lab, one of the only air-conditioned buildings on campus.

Over 90% of all fish in the ocean fling their eggs and sperm into the middle of the water. It’s amazing they find each other through the currents and waves. More amazing is that most larvae, the stage that follows hatching, die.

Less than one larva in a million ever make it. At the microscope these thoughts chased themselves in my head, as I watched the eggs in the petri dish.

Would these eggs die too, before they were born?

The rain cooled on my skin in the air-conditioned currents. I shivered. I wanted coffee to warm up – or maybe some jerk chicken. But I daren’t leave. I might miss it again.

Then – under the light – one of the eggs began to divide.

Life accelerated within the 1.5mm diameter (about the size of a period on this page) saran-wrapped shell. One cell multiplied into hundreds. Doubling almost every second. A slim band marking the fish’s backbone appeared cradling a clear yolk. The back bone, just like yours or mine – announced the life to be.

In tropical fish eggs, where water temperatures of 27 to 30 C (80-86 F) stoke the fire of life. It takes only ten hours, for the tube heart to beat. After twenty-four, the pectoral fins flutter. The fish ready to swim, although not yet free. Then the tail twitches, followed by a violent shake that contorts the pin sized body, and from the top of the fish head, complete with black eyes, enzymes spill and weaken the eggshell – until it tears, and a new fish is born into the world.

Twenty-four hours after fertilization this larval fish is ready to die. Either eaten in the ocean full of predators, or of starvation. As a hunter it often fails, unable to swim well enough to catch its prey. When it runs out of yolk, death is often near-by.

Watching fish eggs morph from one cell into a whole living being ready to swim in the ocean in less than a day, fascinated me as a graduate student. It launched my career in science. Urging me to understand why, if fish spawn millions of eggs, we have a global fisheries crisis.

From my work on raising eggs, from coral reef to commercial fish like Atlantic cod, I developed a desire to conserve what is left. To bring back health to the oceans. For the health of OUR oceans and that of human beings is tied tight to each other. Most do not realize this. Most do not even acknowledge that the oceans or we as a species are sick.

There is so much we don’t know about some of the richest places on this Earth, like the Amazon rain forests, or its oceanic cousin, the coral reef – yet in the dense jungle or between the coral polyps may be the knowledge and the ticket to our survival. If we destroy it, we destroy ourselves.

If you want to learn more about what inspired me to become a Marine Biologist, stay tuned for more personal stories. Maybe they’ll encourage you to ask questions – you would not normally ask. Give you the courage to explore your greatest dreams, as I did. Plant seeds for you and your children’s future.

If I can do it, you can too. What are you dying to know about ocean conservation? Or about sustainable seafood? Or about becoming a Marine Biologist? Ask me.

THE FISH DOCTOR IS IN.