I thought I was playing it safe when I decided to splash around in the natural “baby pool” by the rocky coast of Malta. I had been told that there were jellyfish in the open sea, and, of course, I wanted to avoid them.
So I went for a safe swim in the baby pool. Little did I know what danger lurked amidst the shallow water there: sea anemones, small sea creatures related to jellyfish except that they attach themselves to rocky crevices instead of floating around. After brushing against what felt like rocks and bushes, I started to feel stinging in my legs, followed by an excruciating itching all over my legs.
When I got out of the water, I was horrified: My legs from the knee to the thigh were covered with masses of huge hives (see accompanying photo). My legs swelled up, and they resembled the limbs of the Elephant Man.
Luckily, it was a bad local reaction, requiring little treatment, and the hives subsided within a day. I was left with swelling and a stinging rash (not so bad) that went away within a week or so.
But it was very uncomfortable — not to mention, horrible-looking (even the first aid staff at the beach automatically backed away when they saw it). So here’s what you need to know to stay away from sea anemones or what to do if you get stung:
– Avoid the natural shallow pools along the rocky coast, especially where the water is noticeably warmer than the surrounding water.
– If you do wade into such an area, keep away from rocky rises or plateaus in the water; this is where the anemones find crevices to hide out in and catch their food.
– If you do get stung (and you’ll know it), get out of the water immediately and get or apply the same treatment you would as if you got stung by a jellyfish: Get something like a credit card with a blunt edge to scrape over the stung area to remove the stingers (which you may not even see). Only scrape in one direction, not back and forth. Then apply a liberal amount of vinegar. Don’t wash the area for several hours.
– Expect swelling, severe itching, and hives at first in the area you were stung. The itching will last for several hours. You’ll then be left with a prickly rash in the area for several days to a week. This is normal.
– Most of the rash disappears after a week or so, but even a couple of weeks later, some itching may occur in the area. There should be no scarring.
One warning: If at the time when you first get stung, you develop extreme swelling in the local area or swelling and hives in other parts of your body, be aware that you may be allergic to the toxin, just as some people are allergic to a bee sting. You should then be extra careful, because if you get stung a second time, you could experience a more serious systemic reaction requiring emergency treatment.
Any doubts about your condition? Go see your Mediterranean doctor. And be prepared for lots of enjoyable sympathy from your fellow swimmers.
National Geographic on Sea Anemones
DNA Research on the Elephant Man–from The Independent