With winter’s east winds they travel, floating sapphire jewels with a venomous sting that threatens long after they’ve washed ashore at the whim of the tide.
Portuguese man-of-war, so named for the battleship-shaped balloon that keeps them buoyant, are ferried toward Florida by the strong high pressure systems common during the coldest months of the year.
And they’re back on Palm Beach County’s beaches this week.
The same type of system responsible for this week’s cooler temperatures and northeast winds gusting to nearly 30 mph eventually moves offshore with a persistent clockwise spin that sends the grape-colored sea creatures on a fast track east, said Robert Molleda, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Miami.
“We fly the purple flags pretty frequently in winter,” said Town of Palm Beach Ocean Rescue lifeguard Taylor Jantz, referring to the caution flag alerting to the presence of beach pests. “While a jellyfish sting can feel like a mosquito bite, a man-of-war can create a much harsher reaction.”
Tentacles stacked with coiled, barbed tubes of venom stream out as far as 100 feet from the man-of-war’s gas-filled sail, packing a sting that can swell lymph nodes and cause nausea.
This month, a woman swimming at Phil Foster Park in Riviera Beach became entangled in man-of-war tentacles and was taken to the hospital, according to Steve Kaes, a training officer for Palm Beach County Ocean Rescue South District.
“She was having trouble breathing,” Kaes said. “The more parts of your body it covers, the more stressful it is.”
The man-of-war uses its venomous tentacles to paralyze and kill small fish.
Although often confused with a jellyfish, the man-of-war is actually a siphonophore, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A siphonophore is comprised of different organisms with various functions all working together as one.
While serious reactions to a man-of-war sting are rare, if the tentacles get wrapped around a person, they can stick to the skin, causing lines of red welts that can last for several days. Tentacles can still cause stings after being broken up in rough surf or even after the man-of-war washes ashore and dies.
Jantz said she’s particularly susceptible to man-of-war stings. When touched by a tentacle, her skin swells up around it, and she has to use a rough towel to push the skin apart and pull out the tentacle.
“It’s not pretty,” she said.
With winds turned briefly north following Tuesday’s cold front, there weren’t as many man-of-war on Palm Beach’s Midtown beach Wednesday, but Jantz said she had buried several that morning to keep them away from people strolling the shore where they often get caught in the wrack line.
“Avoid the tentacles, they can stretch out a long, long way,” Kaes said. “The most important thing is to tell children they aren’t toys.”
Tara Smith, of Delray Beach, said she was at a private beach Monday when she noticed her 6-year-old son Harrison shoveling something blue into a pile.
“I thought it was strange and from a distance thought they were water bottles,” Smith said. “But my younger daughter Lexi and him ran to go get me and I saw he was shoveling a ton of man-of-war into a pile.”
Smith said her children weren’t stung, but that the beach was littered with man-of-war.
While lifeguards write on beach condition chalkboards when man-of-war are present, Jantz said people often don’t know what they are or what to look for. Sharks they understand, but the purple critters on the beach seem less threatening.
Children will pop the sails like balloons, which can sting their hands or feet, Jantz said
“Whether they are dry or wet, those toxings are still living,” Jantz said. “They’re beautiful to look at, but can really hurt.”
The Florida Poison Control Center recommends treating the sting by washing the area with sea water, vinegar or alcohol, and scraping off any remaining tentacles.