Look What Washed Up on Our Shore

Just when you thought it was safe to get in the water



It doesn't happen often, but a good southeastern wind from the Gulf Coast can wash these mesmerizing psychedelic Physaliidae onto Charleston shores. And some of the these bluebottles (or Portuguese man o’ war) did just that on Sullivan’s Island recently.


The Portuguese man o’ war is likened to a jellyfish, but is actually a completely different species. Unlike jellyfish, which are single multicellular organisms, the man o’ war is a colony of specialized minute individuals called zooids. That would make it a cluster muster. 


You really can’t avoid them while they are in the water because they don’t swim. They are propelled by tide and wind and can’t help bobbing into you if you are in their path. Their tentacles will wrap around you, leaving red welts and shocking nerve pain.


I worked on a shrimp boat in the Gulf Shores in the '70s. We would shrimp all night competitively, but when morning broke and the shrimp were bedded on ice, we’d tie off with the other trawlers, share breakfast, and unwind. Often, a cool swim in the ocean followed. 


All mornings weren’t so peaceful, though. Like the one when a girl jumped starboard right into a bed of man o’ wars! I will never forget the look of fright on her face as they wrapped around her. Someone threw a ring or line out and pulled her in. She was covered in bleeding red welts. Once onboard, she began shaking really badly and her blood pressure dropped. She was going into shock. The Coast Guard was called in, and she was flown to emergency at Biloxi Hospital. She pulled through but had neurological problems for a while. 


So, if you see this beached blue pod on the shore this weekend, resist the urge to examine it too closely. I've never understood why people like to poke dead stuff with sticks, but they do. If you get a squirt of this venom on you, it may require a trip to the ER. This translucent blue beauty is dangerous and sometimes fatal. It’s venom can be potent for hours and sometimes days.