Kelp and dolphins. Turtles and sharks. Salt water and tides. Whales and swells.
These are things that open water swimmers and triathletes who live in the central part of America usually do not think about as they train in pools and compete in lakes.
But the environment changes – dramatically – once they head to the seashores and are faced with marine life along with the ebb and flow of the ocean.
Sharks are the more obvious apex predator that can strike fear in newcomers to the ocean. But frankly shark sightings are rare even among ocean swimmers. However, what is much more likely are the stings from jellyfish.
There are over 200 different species of jellyfish in the world’s oceans. Each jellyfish has a particular type of venom and means to inject that venom in human skin. The venom – delivered by tiny barbs (nematocysts) is injected automatically upon an encounter to the skin and can be immediately felt by swimmers. The stings can be uncomfortable or discomforting at best – if the swimmer is lucky. But some of the venom leads to severe pain which can be dangerous and potentially lethal.
Each swimmer who is stung with a jellyfish has their own story and their own impressions of how the venom feels. When hit by Lion’s Mane jellyfish or Portuguese man o war, some swimmers feel and “an intense burning sensation“. Some swimmers feel paralysis in their lower limbs if hit by a box jellyfish while others have a pain threshold that can withstand dozens of stings and is beyond the imagination of most humans.
Douglas McConnell, who grew up far away from the oceans in the American Midwest, felt sensations that were somewhere between “it tingled a bit” to “it felt like a branding iron“. He explains, “Growing up in the Midwest, jellyfish were a whole new thing to me. In fact, other than playing in the waves, salt water was pretty new, too. My first real swim in salt water was for the 2011 Tampa Bay Marathon Swim.
I felt little stingers periodically that day, but when I was 9,000 strokes into that swim (note: McConnell is a stroke counter who took 32,000 strokes to complete the 24-mile swim), I was nailed by a serious jelly. It wrapped around my left forearm. I never saw the body of the thing, but my first reaction was that it felt like an electrical shock. I immediately had symptoms; my forearm started to swell, my stomach tied up pretty badly, and I started sneezing uncontrollably.
What he was experiencing was an allergic reaction that some swimmers experience. Everyone is different depending on their own body chemistry. “[My wife] and kids were on the boat. They didn’t know what to do, but the sneezing made Susan realize that she had some Sudafed. I ate a couple of those and waited for the symptoms to ease. I also had to pull the nemo things off my arm which left some lash-like welts. It took several days for the welts, and the rash and itching around the welts, to heal.
The sneezing part was weird, but what worried me the most was the stomach cramps. I figured if I couldn’t process my nutrition drink, it was going to be a short day. One of my kids had heard about urine as an antidote, and obliged me by peeing in an empty Gatorade bottle. I have read since then that urine doesn’t really help. So, I figured I would muscle through another 1,000 strokes and see if I was better. After 1,000 strokes, I still wasn’t right, but I was OK enough not to get in the boat, so I just kept going. I was aware of the stomach issue the whole rest of the day.
McConnell used his 10 hour 44 minute Tampa Bay Marathon Swim as a trial run for his English Channel attempt. “I knew I needed to load up on Sudafed for several days before the swim in order to be ready for [the Channel]. I also got one of those Epi-Pens, but even my doctor said that it would be pretty worthless for the kinds of jellies we would encounter in the English Channel.
The 53-year-old entrepreneur prepared for the worse, but got pretty lucky out between England and France. In the English Channel, I was so worried about jellies because they are so unpredictable and the swimmer is so powerless. I had also talked to John Muenzer who has a real horror story about them in the English Channel. So, I loaded up on the Sudafed before we left, and as luck would have it, I only felt one jelly on the whole swim. It bounced off my upper chest at 30,000 strokes (out of the total of 42,000) and was gone. We had pretty rough water in England, so that may be part of the reason. Susan and the kids were on that boat, too, and reported that they saw a number of them; my son Gordy still talks about the ones that he saw in terms of color and size (‘pink basketballs’ and ‘blue garbage can lids’).”
But where he got lucky in the English Channel, his 12 hour 41 minute Catalina Channel crossing was a completely different story. “Catalina was jellyfish heaven. I had loaded up on the Sudafed again. I had slathered up with that SafeSea before I got in the water. I have no idea if it helped or not. Again, I never see the jellies, but I could sure feel them. They went in clusters (John calls them shoals) so you would feel them every ten or twelve strokes for several hundred strokes. Then I would not feel any for two miles. Then, you’d go through another cluster of them again. Marcia Cleveland reported a similar experience in Santa Barbara the year before.
His invertebrate marine nemeses were not large, just numerous. I didn’t have any of the long-legged wraparound types in Catalina, just a zillion little guys. Most times, the little ones would sting my hands or upper chest and be gone, but in Catalina I was very aware of them on my face. That strip of skin between your cap and goggles, as well as my cheeks got lots of zingers. The weirdest, though, were the ones that would wrap around the eye piece of my goggles. They looked like they were the size between big coins and hockey pucks, and they would wrap around and just rest on my nose. Of course, they sting like crazy, so when I got those, I would stop and pull them off. It happened many times. In fact, one of our crew members reminds when I stopped to complain about a jellyfish-on-the-goggles and I had one caught in the goggles right then.
For me, jellyfish are all part of the challenge. I can say that because I have never been in a lift-threatening situation, but I am not going to change my behavior or avoid certain swims because of them. I feel like I have learned how to prepare, do what I can, and let ‘er rip.”
McConnell also has the scars on his skin as remnants of his jellyfish encounters. As many swimmers do, the scars are a visible means that they belong to a pretty special club. And there are always great stories behind the scars. “I am pretty proud of the jellyfish lash-scars, some of which are still there.”
Swimmers, triathletes, surfers, beach goers, paddle boarders, fishermen, crew and kayakers can tell their own jellyfish stories at jellyfish sting database at IGotStung.com.
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