Man-of-wars won't leave us alone

Portuguese man-of-war

FOLLY BEACH -- Watch your step if you're wading through the surf.

A swarm of tiny Portuguese man-of-wars -- armed with stinging masses of tentacles -- apparently has turned up along the Washout surfing spot and nearby waters.

Surfers say they have seen them all over the place.

"Quite a few," said Luke Pope-Corbett of Charleston Kayak Co., who was in the surf Tuesday. "They were golf-ball-size."

Man-of-wars usually show up in the summer, and there have been no reports of them along Sullivan's Island or Isle of Palms. Crabber Fred Dockery spotted two Monday in the Stono River behind Folly. "They looked like floating bottle caps," he said.

Portuguese man-of-wars are gorgeous, jellyfish-like creatures with tentacles that can hang as long as a tree is high and a sting that burns like fire.

They are alluring enough to draw the curious. They have blobs like sails that look like shiny blue balloons bobbing in the water. They can lose most of their tentacles and appear harmless on the beach.

There's one bright spot: Man-of-wars can get as big as a basketball, and those tentacles stretch out a long way. Compared to those full adults, these guys are practically shrimps.

"I'm not too worried about them this time of year, with all the neoprene (wetsuits) on," Pope-Corbett said. "But you don't want to take one in the face when you dive."

Man-of-wars can't swim. Their "sails" allow them to be pushed along by winds and tide. They are tropical-water dwellers but are found in the Gulf Stream offshore and tend to blow in on east or southeast winds.

The winds lately have been southeast. One telltale hint that they are around is sargassum along the beaches. It too blows or floats in from the Gulf Stream.

Man-of-wars might be more common in the summer, but the waters offshore are several degrees warmer than usual for this time of year.

At the Folly Pier the temperature is in the low 60s, said Charlie Vance, assistant pier manager. At the Edisto Buoy some 40 miles offshore and closer to the Gulf Stream, the temperature is about 10 degrees warmer.

Man-of-wars can be confused with velella jellyfish, a similar but harmless creature that is common this time of year, said David Whitaker, S.C. Natural Resources Department deputy director of marine resources. "If they are man-of-war, those numbers are unusual."

The people who have seen them know the difference and are relatively sure.

"The way that sail sticks out of the water," Dockery said, "that's unmistakable."

Typically found in warm waters of the tropics, subtropics and Gulf Stream. Propelled by wind and ocean currents, they sometimes drift into nearshore waters of South Carolina.

Purple-blue, pink fringe, purple tentacles. Looks like a blue balloon or plastic floating on the surface. Can reach lengths of 10 inches. Under the float, tentacles equipped with thousands of venom capsules hang from the feeding polyps and extend as far as 60 feet.

Can inflict extremely painful stings. Symptoms include severe shooting pain described as a shock-like sensation, and intense joint and muscle pain. Pain may be accompanied by headaches, shock, collapse, faintness, hysteria, chills, fever, nausea and vomiting.

To treat stings, spray or shower with seawater or fresh water to remove any tentacles stuck to the skin. Don't use vinegar.