Remember that ‘50s monster movie Them that was all about the giant ants in the sewers? If you don’t, hit Netflix and check it out. Seeing it on TV when I was in elementary school scared the pee out of me because I hate, hate, hate ants. Period. Ask anyone. Did I mention I hate ants?
Well there’s an insidious creature out there in the sea that gives me the willies just about as much as ants: jelly fish. They’re pretty and all but when those tentacles touch your skin you wish you had never been born. Or I do anyway. Being mildly allergic my first jelly fish sting was kind of like being hit in the sternum by a lineman’s helmet just as someone set fire to my arm. Now I carry Benadryl and vinegar in my beach bag. So, of course, no stings since then.
All the same, while doing a little research for the second annual Horror on the High Seas Week I found out that pirates would sometimes use jelly fish as torture devices. The most popular one for the purpose of getting a captive to talk was the huge, ominous globe shown above: a Portuguese Man of War. Imagine my horror when I delved even more into these delightfully scary creatures and found out that just one was not an individual at all but a group of four polyps banded together to form a colony. A Portuguese Man of War is not an “it”, it’s a “them”. Oh yeah, and it’s also not a jelly fish.
The uppermost polyp is a gas-filled bladder called a pneumatophore which lets the creature(s) float and bob in the current and sometimes be pushed along by the breeze. This polyp gave the things their name; someone thought it looked like a warship in full sail. The next polyp is the tentacles. These have been recorded at up to 165 feet but most sources agree that 30 feet in length is about average. The tentacles have barbs, like a harpoon, and are covered with nematocysts filled with venom. When touching human flesh the burning pain can be intense and the injected toxin will scar the skin. Depending on the number of stings and a person’s sensitivity to the toxin, a Portuguese Man of War can potential kill a human being. Especially cheerful is the fact that dead creatures washed up on shore and even free-floating tentacles in the water can continue to inflict painful stings for hours. The other two polyps control digestion and reproduction.
Portuguese Man of War eat fish up to the size of a mackerel and they frequently have parasitic fish called Nomeus that live in their tentacles, even feeding off them, for their life cycle. Some scientists speculate that the Nomeus acts as a lure which attracts larger fish to its host but is immune to the neurotoxin. The Portuguese Man of War ranges the ocean and sea waters north and south of the equator, including the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Some of the largest specimens have been seen in and around Australia and they tend to range in packs of up to 1,000. Quite a sight, as long as you’re not in the water with them.
Because the Portuguese Man of War is so often mistakenly tagged a jelly fish, the usual cures for jelly fish stings are frequently applied to the skin when a Portuguese Man of War has been encountered. In fact vinegar, urine and other ammonia based cures only make the burning sensation more pronounced and increase the possibility of scarring. Cold water or, if at all possible, ice should be applied to the affected area and the skin left out in the air rather than bandaged. The worst of the burning will usually pass within an hour but trouble with breathing or continued or increased pain or redness at the site are a good sign that medical attention is needed.
And what of our pirate scooping a Portuguese Man of War out of the water with his cutlass and dangling it in front of his captive’s face to elicit the location of some treasure or other? Well, it wouldn’t be fair to spoil all the joys of Horror on the High Seas five weeks before we’ve even begun. Besides, I’m quite certain your imaginations can give you some inkling of what a clever pirate could do with “them”.
Picture via National Geographic Animals