They’re back! We’re not talking hurricanes, though that season is officially underway.
And, no, this is not about sharks; Discovery’s dubious Shark Week doesn’t start until the end of July.
No, it’s time for the increasingly unpopular annual return of jellyfish swarms to beaches around the world. Last year, the gelatinous, free-floating sea creatures made much of the western Mediterranean unswimmable. This past weekend—the unofficial start of summer—thousands of nasty, golf-ball-size jellyfish washed ashore on a 10-mile stretch of Florida’s east coast, stinging a reported 1,800 swimmers. Red warning flags were posted on beaches from Cocoa Beach to Cape Canaveral.
Thanks to the overfishing of big predator fish and warmer ocean waters, jellies are showing up sooner, in bigger numbers, and far beyond home territories. In Florida they clogged the shallows and took over the wet sand of the beach. Despite air temps in the 90s and a water temperature of 79, wetsuits were very popular. Innocent kids picked up the jellyfish and tossed them at each other, only to be stung. Tough guys waded into the shallows attempting to shrug the stings off, but quickly ran toward lifeguard stands that had stocked up with vinegar-and-water solutions to diffuse the itching, burning and rashes, which I guess beats urinating on them. Also, Benadryl cream is said to alleviate itching and swelling. At least two jelly victims were hospitalized.
The beachings are worse for the jellies than for man; as soon as the creatures hit the sand, they start to die. So many of them are massed in the shallows that they soon run out of food.
Even more surprising than the quantity of jellyfish in Florida was the species. The critters washing ashore by the thousands were so-called mauve stingers, which haven’t dotted Florida beaches for more than a decade (more common are the blue Portuguese man-of-war or cannonball varieties). Compact but fitted with long tentacles, mauve stingers are exactly the same jellyfish that harassed Mediterranean beaches during the summer of 2010.
Scientists believe the stingers were transported across the Atlantic in the Gulf Stream, which wraps around the coast of Florida, suggesting a steady migration of the mauves will menace Gator state beaches throughout this summer. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, biologists who study the Irish Sea are blaming the overfishing of herring for giving jellyfish an “exponential boost” in population. The trend has been growing since 2005.
Though routes taken by these jellyfish to these beaches are still under study, it’s clear that humankind taking 100 to 120 million tons of predators out of the sea in the past 20 years has left plenty of room for jellyfish populations to explode. Jellyfish thrive in disturbed marine ecosystems, loving dead zones and seabed’s that have been raked by trawling nets. Powerful currents and global shipping fleets give the bouyant pests free travel around the world.
In Florida, the only person happier than pharmacists selling out their Benadryl is a Cocoa Beach, Florida, coconut salesman. He claims the less time people spend in the water cooling off, the thirstier they are.
(For the rest of my dispatches, go to takepart.com)