On the face of it, the Portuguese man o’ war is a breathtaking beauty, its blue, violet, or pink balloon-like float bobbing gently above the rippling ocean surface as its long, ethereal tentacles drift serenely below. Dive a little deeper, however, and you’ll find that these jellyfish impostors are nothing short of terrors of the sea.
Because of this, it’s no surprise that, horrified to learn of Portuguese man o’ war covering their shores, the Shore Beach Service in South Carolina leaped into action. In addition to collecting and burying every jelly they found, they released a fervent warning to all visitors against the stinging sea creatures.
“[Portuguese Man O’ War] are very colorful creatures, but DO NOT TOUCH THEM!” the SBS wrote in a Facebook post. “Their sting is extremely painful, and they will still sting on the beach [after they have washed up]!”
What Makes Portuguese Man O’ War More Terrifying Than Jellyfish?
So, for those unfamiliar with the Portuguese man o’ war, this reaction might seem a bit extreme. But the jelly masqueraders are far more frightening than meets the eye.
Let’s start with perhaps the most terrifying fact of all. Unlike jellyfish, a Portuguese man o’ war isn’t an “it” at all. It’s a “they.”
The Portuguese man o’ war is a siphonophore. This means that each singular being is actually made up of many smaller organisms called zooids. The zooids each fulfill a specialized function, working together to allow the colony to operate as a single animal.
In short, a Portuguese man o’ war is more closely akin to an alien than a jellyfish. And that’s just the beginning.
We all know that jellyfish, though absolutely magical to watch, should never be touched, thanks to their stinging tentacles. Well, the Portuguese man o’ war has tentacles too – far more dangerous ones.
Stretching well over 100 feet in length, each man o’ war thread is equipped with thousands upon thousands of stinging cells. And though its tentacles are many, it needs only one to kill a fish. Or a human.
After catching a fish, a Portuguese man o’ war will reel it in using its long tentacles, paralyzing it with its deadly sting. It then transfers the catch to other tentacles for digestion. Using incredibly powerful digestive chemicals, the man o’ war liquefies its prey, leaving only a scaly pulp where a whole fish used to be.
Scientists Stumped by Man O’ War Appearance in South Carolina
So, as you can see, an encounter with a Portuguese man o’ war isn’t something anyone should seek out. It’s far more difficult to avoid, however, when dozens of them wash ashore on a South Carolina beach. Unfortunately, marine experts have no idea what causes this phenomenon.
“Usually we’ll see these or other jellyfish show up in numbers when there have been strong storms offshore, but I don’t know of any recent offshore storms,” Daniel Season, a research scientist with the Marine Resources Institute, told Fox Weather. “It also is less common to see them in large numbers in the winter, but certainly not unheard of.”
Though the man o’ war prefers tropical and subtropical waters, it can be found in just about every ocean. Because of that, an occasional man o’ war washing ashore isn’t all that shocking. That said, this incident appears to mark the demise of an entire colony.
“It’s not uncommon to see them on the beach in South Carolina in the winter, but it does look like a whole colony stranded on Hilton Head,” said Erin Weeks of the Marine Resources Division. “Beautiful, interesting creatures that are fortunately easy to identify and avoid.”