Gulf County locals and visitors were fascinated by the strange, blue creatures dotting the beaches over the weekend, taking to Facebook to share photos and discuss their mystery.
But the small Portuguese man-of-wars that have been washing up on shorelines across the Florida panhandle, while delicate in appearance, pack a powerful punch.
“These jellyfish-like marine pests can and will produce a very painful sting, even when they are washed up,” wrote South Walton Fire District in a Facebook post New Year’s Eve. “Use warm water, not ice, to relieve pain. Call 911 immediately if you begin to experience allergic reaction symptoms such as shortness of breath, dizziness, or severe hives,” they advised.
Most of the Gulf County man-of-war sightings were reported on the Gulf-facing side of Cape San Blas, Indian Pass and the T.S. Stone St. Joseph Peninsula Memorial State Park, where rougher than normal surf has caused the creatures, which are common in Florida waters, to come ashore.
Employees at the State Park told the Star that they are flying a purple flag over the beach to warn visitors of the dangerous marine life. However, they were unaware of any stings within the park, citing the stormy and cold weather for keeping crowds low.
While no flags have been issued over Cape San Blas or Indian Pass, South Gulf Fire Rescue’s Fire Chief Mike Barret explained that this is just because the fire department does not put up beach flags during the winter months, when the beaches have fewer visitors.
“We stop at the end of November,” he said. “And until Memorial Day, we don’t do beach flags… That’s kind of been the policy. We’re actually going to have a meeting here pretty soon to go over that issue.”
In a tweet, South Walton Fire District explained that while rarely deadly, Portuguese man-of-war stings are extremely strong and can cause welts on exposed skin.
Despite its jellyfish-like appearance, the creature is actually a siphonophore, or a colonial organism made up of smaller units called zooids, which are genetically identical but fulfill specialized functions like feeding and reproduction.
The zooid responsible for hunting, which hangs from the organism a tentacles and can stretch up to 40 feet, deploy venomous nematocysts to stick to and kill its prey. This causes an extremely painful reaction in humans and other animals. On rare occasions, man-of-war stings can cause human deaths.
Officials have advised that beachgoers exercise extreme caution when near the Gulf of Mexico. If someone is stung, South Walton Fire District said, it is important that the individual not remove the creature with their bare hands. Instead, they should use gloves or another object, like a stick, to pry the man-of-war off.
Then, the person should rinse the affected area with warm water and seek medical help if they experience severe symptoms.