By David Fleshler, Sun Sentinel
7:37 p.m. EST, February 3, 2014
Come to South Florida and experience the sun, the surf, the venomous tentacles of the Portuguese man-of-war.
It's the season for stinging blobs that resemble jellyfish to wash ashore, and purple warning flags were flying Monday at beaches in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
The Portuguese man-of-war tends to be found off South Florida from late fall to early spring, said Charles Messing, professor at Nova Southeastern University's Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography. When winds blow strongly toward shore, as they have in the past few days, the beaches become littered with the translucent gas bladders that are their most prominent feature (until they sting you).
Breck Ballou, chief of Fort Lauderdale Ocean Rescue, said there are thousands of stings a year in his city and sometimes 100 in a single day.
"If they get stung, nine times out of 10 it's very minor," he said. "We ask if they're allergic to bees — that's the first question (since it may indicate a bad reaction to a man-of-war sting.) More often than not, it's just a little sting. If they have a severe reaction, we'll call Fire Rescue."
Although often mistaken for a jellyfish, the Portuguese man-of-war is a different thing entirely. To begin with, it's not a single creature but a cluster of separate animals that have evolved a division of labor, Messing said.
"The Portuguese man o' war is actually a floating colony of polyps — the balloon, some polyps for stinging, some for digestion," he said. "It's more closely related to fire corals and the freshwater hydra than to true jellies."
In Boca Raton, lifeguards treat stings by using Popsicle sticks to scrape the barbs off the skin and rinse the wound with salt water because fresh water causes the release of more venom, said Ocean Rescue Lt. Patrick "Squid" McGlamery. On rare occasions, medical attention is required, such as if the pain travels up the arm to the armpit or up the leg to the groin or if the victim feels ill, he said.
He recommended swimmers keep to shallow water when the warning flags are up and stay out altogether if they're allergic to insect stings.
There are a couple of particularly nasty qualities to know about. The Portuguese man-of-war can break apart in choppy water, with its tentacles floating free, virtually invisible but all-too-easy to feel if they sting you, according to McGlamery. He said the water Monday was rough enough to generate this phenomenon.
And that interesting-looking dead Portuguese man-of-war on the beach can still sting, so you probably don't want to touch it.
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