The Great Barrier Reef is a natural wonder filled with diverse marine life and breathtaking views. This natural wonder draws tourists from all over the world!
One of the most popular times to visit the reef starts in mid-October and runs through May. Coincidentally this is also our Stinger Season.
Stinger season refers to the influx of jellyfish that appear in and around far north Queensland. The jellyfish love this area because of the warm tropical waters.
Now you might be thinking why are there so many animals that are trying to kill me in Australia? Truth is yes getting stung by a jellyfish sucks, and it can be fatal in rare occurrences.
But we have been in the water with these animals for decades with little to no incidents. There are safety barriers in place to separate people and jellyfish.
We need to remember that we are sharing the water with these animals and to be respectful and mindful of other creatures.
So now that we know there are jellyfish in the water, it’s time to find out what types of jellyfish we should protect ourselves from.
I’m pretty sure you would have heard of bluebottles if you are Australian. The bluebottle is Australia’s most common stinging jellyfish. They can be found in the ocean or washed up on the beach.
Their sting causes immediate pain but it is not life threatening. The pain from a bluebottle sting can last anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. If you happen to get stung by one first remove any remaining tentacles by washing the area with sea water. Then immerse the area in hot water for at least 20 minutes. Remember vinegar is not recommended for bluebottle stings.
I got stung by a bluebottle while at work about 2 years ago. A woman was struggling to swim from the boat to the reef so I helped her. I was basically towing her to the reef when I felt something hit my face.
My forehead started stinging and hurting, I never saw what I hit but I knew it must have been a jellyfish. I ignored the pain until I got this woman out to the reef. Then when I swam back to the boat I put some vinegar on my forehead.
I went to the bathroom and found blue tentacles in my hair. I thought to myself well I guess I got stung by a bluebottle. Being from New York I had never seen or gotten stung by a bluebottle before. This was all new to me!
Anyways my skipper told me to rinse my forehead with hot water from the shower and put an icepack on my forehead. The ice pack helped ease the pain, it wasn’t terribly painful. Just more annoying actually.
I walked around with that ice pack for about half an hour and customers kept asking me if I was okay. I was fine and by the end of the day I think the swelling from the sting had gone away.
So if you encounter a bluebottle on your trip just remember the pain you feel shouldn’t have you running to the emergency room.
The Irukandji jellyfish is a small, extremely venomous species of box jellyfish. It is approximately two centimeters in diameter and its tentacles can be up to 1m long. They can be extremely difficult for swimmers to notice in the water.
You do not want to come across these guys! These jellyfish are found in tropical Australian waters, from Bundaberg, Queensland to Geraldton in Western Australia.
If you are unlucky enough to be stung by an Irukandji jellyfish you will go through what is called Irukandji Syndrome. The signs and symptoms of this are not always immediate. They may appear 5 to 45 minutes after the initial sting.
Some symptoms that you may have include severe backache, shooting pains in your muscles, nausea, vomiting, anxiety, restlessness and breathing difficulties.
There have been some Irukandji stings at Low Isles from November – May in previous years. If you do get stung your tour operator will carefully remove you from the water and immediately douse the sting area with vinegar for at least 30 seconds.
If vinegar is not available, carefully remove the tentacles and rinse well with seawater. Triple Zero will be called and you will be taken to the hospital. It is a dreadfully painful sting that I would not wish on my worst enemies.
But the chances of getting stung are rare and you’d have to be very unlucky if it happened to you. Out of the millions of people who visit the Great Barrier Reef, a bad year of Irukandji stings will be around 50-100.
The box jellyfish is considered to be the most venomous marine animal in the world. Its body size can reach up to one foot in diameter and its tentacles can be up to 10 feet long!
They are pale blue, transparent in color, and can have up to 15 tentacles growing from each corner of the bell. Each tentacle has about 5,000 stinging cells which are triggered by the presence of a chemical on the outer layer of its prey.
If you are unfortunate enough to be stung by a box jellyfish its poison may cause paralysis, cardiac arrest, and even death, all within a few minutes of being stung.
The box jellyfish uses its powerful venom to paralyze its prey such as fish and shrimp. The venom contains toxins that attack the heart, nervous system and skin cells.
Human victims have been known to go into shock and drown or die of heart failure before even reaching shore. Those who survive the sting will have livid scars and pain for weeks after the tentacles have made contact.
Box jellyfish live primarily in coastal waters off Northern Australia and throughout the Indo-Pacific. They can be found dispersed in and around the Great Barrier Reef.
However as scary as this sounds your chances of getting a sting from a box jelly are rare. I have been working on the Great Barrier Reef for 4 years and I’ve only seen them two, maybe three times.
If you do get stung while on a tour you will be brought to the proper medical authorities. We also have preventative measures in place to decrease the risk of a jellyfish sting.
Here are a few simple things you can do to protect yourself from getting stung by a jellyfish.
1. Wear a stinger suit
Stinger suits were developed to protect people from stinging jellyfish so that they can still enjoy the warm water and the reef throughout the jellyfish season. AKA summer here in Australia.
Stinger suits are full-body suits designed to protect the body from the stings of jellyfish. They are much lighter than wetsuits and have been engineered to prevent jellyfish tentacles from gripping to you.
Instead they simply slip off the fabric. When a jellyfish’s tentacles touch the suit it doesn’t perceive the person wearing it to be a threat. Therefore the jellyfish will not release venom from its tentacles as it brushes past.
A good stinger suit is typically made from a highly-stretchy material like lycra, nylon or spandex. These fabrics can protect against jellyfish stings and are also very flexible and comfortable.
It is important to wear them correctly though. These suits have a hood and gloves for your hands so that the only exposed skin is your face. You will be wearing a mask but be aware you will still have some exposed skin on your forehead and around your mouth and chin.
Some of the world’s most dangerous jellyfish can be found around the reefs and coastlines in Queensland. Which is why it is so important to wear your stinger suit properly.
They also have the added benefit of protecting you from the harsh Australian sun. Trust me nothing is worse than coming home from a day out snorkeling and your red as a tomato from being sunburnt!
If you go out on a snorkeling/diving tour the company should provide you with a stinger suit so you do not need to buy your own.
Of course if you have your own boat or you don’t want to wear a stinger suit that hundreds of people have already worn in the past, you can buy your own suit.
I personally wear lycra leggings, booties, a rash top, gloves and two buffs around my neck and head to keep me covered and protected.
2. Swim In The Stinger Nets
Back in 1982 James Cook University designed a safe swimming enclosure so people could still enjoy swimming at the beaches in North Queensland without the fear of being stung by box jellyfish.
These stinger nets act as a physical deterrent and barrier to Box Jellyfish and other large marine wildlife. The nets are in operation during peak stinger season which is the end of October through to May.
Now it’s important to remember that the nets are not 100% stinger proof. While they do give a high degree of protection against Box Jellyfish, the stingers can still wash over the top or through the sides of the net too.
The Irukandji jellyfish are small enough to pass through the mesh of the net. Which is why many people still wear stinger suits when swimming inside the nets.
Every morning the lifeguards check the nets for jellyfish. They do regular stinger drags throughout the day as well. If stingers are present the beach may be closed until weather patterns change and drive the jellyfish away from the coastline.
At Four Mile Beach in Port Douglas Surf Life Saving Queensland encourages people to only swim between the red and yellow flags. Box jellyfish breed in creeks so when the monsoon rains hit they get flushed out into the sea. That is why we need the nets.
Now that we’ve talked about the stinging jellyfish, let me introduce you to the moon jellyfish! Moon jellyfish are found throughout the world’s oceans. They are recognizable by the four circles visible through the translucent white bell.
These jellyfish are purple in color, have short delicate tentacles and are made up of 95% water. These jellyfish do not pose humans any harm. In fact if you were to touch them majority of the time they won’t sting. If they do happen to sting though it is a very light sting.
During the summer months out on the reef we can find an abundance of moon jellies. I’m talking in the hundreds! It can be quite fun to swim through a sea of them. It’s almost like swimming in outer space.
The moon jellyfish also happen to be one of the favorite foods of turtles! You can find turtles munching away on the moon jelly’s every summer. It can make for some great photos & videos!
To Swim During Stinger Season Or Not?
At the end of the day it is your decision. I think it’s perfectly fine to swim during stinger season as long as you have the proper protection on.
If you go out to the reef the chances of you getting stung are actually less likely than swimming at the beach. That is because jellyfish like to stay closer to shore.
But if you do get stung on a tour the crew are well trained to get you the proper medical attention. Same thing goes for the lifesavers/lifeguards at the beaches.
However if you prefer to avoid the ocean altogether during jellyfish season, far north Queensland has many beautiful freshwater swimming holes where you won’t find any jellyfish! Not to mention every hotel/resort has a pool where you can relax and stay cool during the hot summer months!
I hope this post hasn’t scared you too much, summer is still a great time to come out to the reef. Especially because we can get really calm days with hardly any wind where the water actually looks like glass!
Would you rather come to the reef in summer when it’s calm but you have jellyfish? Or in winter when it’s choppy and windy but you can see whales? Let me know in the comments!