Highly Dangerous Portuguese Man O’ War Arrive on South Carolina, Florida Coasts in Time for Spring Break

by Megan Molseed
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They may be made up of some gorgeous colors and even look majestic while swimming within their elements, but the Portuguese man o’ war, a relative of the jellyfish, is one of the most toxic animals on the planet. Earlier this year, lifeguards set up the purple flags all along the coast from South Carolina down to Southern Florida, warning outdoor lovers and ocean-goers that these toxic animals were traveling through the area. Now, these purple flags have returned to the beaches, just as spring breakers are continuing to hit beaches all along the coast.

“These animals are some of the most toxic animals in the world,” notes Tony McEwan. McEwan serves as the Curator and Marine Biologist at the University of Hawaii’s Waikiki Aquarium.

“They’re not very maneuverable animals,” McEwan continues. “So their prey has to be immobilized very quickly.”

Portrait of a Portuguese man-of-war (Physalia physalis), Curacao, Netherlands Antilles, (Photo by Wild Horizons/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Portuguese Man O’ War May Look Pretty, But Whatever You Do…DO NOT TOUCH

The float section of a Portuguese Man O’ War is certainly a gorgeous addition to the ocean landscape. Covered in hues such as violets, gossamer blues, and pinks, these ocean-dwellers can grow up to six inches long.

However, the Portuguese man o’ war is seriously dangerous to anything that approaches it, even those that simply brush against its tentacles. When this happens, they fire barbs loaded with painful toxins. These toxins serve to paralyze its prey. At which point, the man o’ war pulls the prey straight into its stomach.

“The Portuguese man o’ war is not going to kill you,” notes McEwan.

“But, it’s going to be painful,” the marine biologist continues.

“And it’s going to be uncomfortable and very itchy for a while,” he adds. “Then it slowly, slowly dissipates.” The expert does note, however, that the toxins can be deadly to those with an allergy.

What Should One Do After A Toxic Man O’ War Sting?

According to the experts, there are a few things swimmers can do should they be unfortunate enough to come into contact with the toxic animal. First, scientists say spraying or pouring vinegar on the wound or the area in which one is stung will help to deactivate the active “firing cells.”

Scraping a skin with a credit card can also help remove stinging cells from the tentacles. Making sure to remove the ones that haven’t yet fired. Next, experts recommend soaking the affected area in warm – almost hot – water. Over-the-counter antihistamines oven curb the itching that results from the sting.

McEwan recommends avoiding water altogether when these marine animals are present. And, the expert notes, beach-goers should make sure to wear shoes while walking on the shoreline. The man o’ war tentacles can grow to be as long as 100 feet and can extend well past the water’s line when washing up close to shore.

The man o’ war is entirely dependent on winds and currents to travel within the oceans. These animals prefer tropical and subtropical waters. However, strong winds and storms often bring the animals closer to beaches. Therefore, they can be found in nearly every ocean at nearly any time.