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January 2017    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 43, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Terror of the Irukandji

is a tiny invisible jellyfish the most lethal?

from the January, 2017 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Deadly jellyfish stings are being touted as a possible cause of the mystery deaths of two French tourists snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef in November. It's believed they suffered heart attacks, but Sydney cardiologist Dr. Ross Walker has speculated an Irukandji jellyfish could be to blame, because it was unlikely two people would die so close together.

The Irukandji may become more populous, because while sea turtles feed on them, they are an endangered species thanks to fishing and egg gathering.

In March 2002, an American tourist was snorkeling near Hamilton Island in the Whitsundays when he received a tiny sting. He couldn't see anything that might have caused it. After some minutes a headache set in and he retreated back to the boat. After another ten minutes the pain began to spread, with severe muscle cramps until he could no longer control his movements. Airlifted to a hospital, the doctors were almost helpless in what they could do for him. There is no antivenom for the Irukandji syndrome. They could only give him powerful painkillers to help alleviate the agony, but he 'continually climbed the stairs of pain.' Within two weeks, he was dead from a brain hemorrhage. He had been killed by a tiny, almost invisible jellyfish weighing just a few grams.

A few months later, a second tourist suffered the same fate after being stung near Port Douglas. He suffered headache, shooting pains in the muscles, chest, abdomen and back. Other symptoms included nausea and vomiting. What usually killed the victims of the Irukandji jellyfish was hypertension and heart failure due to the excruciating and continuing pain.

These animals had been undiscovered until 1964, when Dr. Jack Barnes, an emergency room doctor who had attempted to treat numerous people suffering the same, proved their existence. He routinely searched the coastal waters near Cairns, Queensland, Australia, until he found what he was looking for. Nobody believed that such a modestlooking creature could throw such a deadly punch. To prove his case, he let one sting himself, the local lifeguard and his son. Within the hour all three were in the hospital with Irukandji syndrome, but luckily all three survived. In honor of his dedication, the jellyfish was named Carukia barnesi.

Unlike the well-known and almost as equally deadly box jellyfish, the Irukandji jellyfish can be found in deeper waters, offering a hazard to divers and snorkelers who don't wear a full covering of neoprene despite the waters being very warm.

Divers are usually immune to such attacks. They tend to go into the water clad in rubber, often with hood and gloves. If you think that that can keep you safe, think again. If you think that if you never dive near the region where the most stings have occurred, such as in North Queensland, think again.

The news gets more disturbing. Cases of Irukandji syndrome have cropped up far beyond the warm tropical waters of the Far East and the Pacific. An American military combat diver on a routine training mission in Florida, completely covered in neoprene from head to toe apart from maybe a small area of cheek between his regulator and his mask, got stung and suffered Irukandji syndrome. There have since been reported cases in Japan and even one in the rather cold or even frigid waters off the coast of the UK. It seems these jellyfishes can exist almost anywhere! (from Amazing Diving Stories)

- John Bantin

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