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March 2010    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 36, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Asia-Pacific Divers Feeling More Jellyfish Stings

from the March, 2010 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

It’s that time of year again in Queensland, Australia, when deadly irukandji and box jellyfish move into its waters and get the beaches cordoned off for six months. This season, 50 people so far have been hospitalized after being stung along Queensland’s far north and central coasts. One was Ben Southall, the lucky guy who won last year’s “The Best Job in the World” contest to be caretaker of Hamilton Island in the Whitsundays -- he was stung on the elbow while jet-skiing.

This year, even divers wearing wetsuits haven’t been spared. In December, a 28-year-old Englishman wearing a full-body stinger suit was unlucky enough to dive face first into a jellyfish off South Molle Island. In late January, a 43-year-old Londoner aboard the Pacific Star was doing an afternoon dive near Hayman Island when he was stung on the face and neck.

We e-mailed four dive shops in Cairns and Port Douglas, plus the Queensland Dive Tourism Association, to ask if they’ve had bad jellyfish run-ins or are planning for any. None responded to us. One of our Indian Ocean correspondents followed up, calling two Cairns dive operators, who said it was a non-issue.

Not so fast, say Peter Fenner, a professor at James Cook University, and John Lippmann, executive director of Divers Alert Network Asia-Pacific, who state that the jellyfish are becoming a problem in other Asia-Pacific countries. They wrote an article in the September 2009 issue of Diving and Hyperbaric Medicine noting an increase of severe Irukandji-like stings in Thailand waters, and detailed two serious cases.

In December 2007, a 35-year-old dive instructor was diving off Koh Tao, hanging his left arm over the mooring line at the safety stop to support his camera. Back on the boat, he pulled down his wetsuit and felt a stinging sensation like a cigarette burn on his inner left arm. Within minutes, the pain had moved up his arm, across his back and into his legs. He had severe chest pain, difficulty breathing and an irregular heartbeat. He recovered in the hospital but even a year later, he still experienced leg pain and chest discomfort.

A month later, a 40-year-old British diver wearing a sleeveless wetsuit without a hood was diving near Pattaya. Climbing the ascent line, he felt a sharp pain on the back of his head. Reaching back, he felt a tentacle, which became caught in the current and wrapped around both his arms, causing intense pain. He surfaced, and crew poured vinegar over the wound and removed tentacle traces, but he began vomiting, and suffered severe abdominal cramps and chest tightness. Spiral marks, surrounded by skin lesions, were left on his arms and scalp. After 18 hours in the hospital, he returned to his hotel room but four hours later, the stomach cramps returned and he vomited blood. He returned to the hospital, was discharged the next day and made a slow recovery over several weeks.

This is the reason for wearing skins and a hood in these waters, no matter how warm they are. Also, slather on SafeSea before every dive. Multiple tests have shown the lotion protects against many types of jellyfish and fire coral stings (

While Queensland’s dive industry may not reply to our questions about jellyfish, the situation is worse elsewhere, Fenner and Lippmann write. “News of fatalities and severe stings appears sometimes to be suppressed by tourism operators in more underdeveloped countries, concerned about the impact on their businesses and local economy. Also, unlike Australia’s comprehensive world news coverage, any reports of fatal jellyfish stings are far less likely to be publicized, unless the fatality involves an overseas tourist.”

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