Man-O-Wars Are On Our Shores!

Early yesterday, I saw pictures and comments on social media warning Portuguese Man Of War organisms had washed up on beaches in South East Cornwall. Intrigued, I visited Seaton beach between Torpoint and Looe for a snoop and to see if I could find any myself.

The Portuguese Man of War (Physalia physalis) is not an especially common sight in UK waters, but is a resident of the Atlantic and can therefore be brought ashore by strong currents and tides. It’s presence is something to be aware and take notice of though, for this organism is capable of powerful stings harmful to humans.

In Australia, Physalia is responsible for many thousands of envenomations (stings) each year and its presence in coastal waters down under is never ignored or approached casually. Visit an Aussie beach and you are bound to see a plethora of warning signs and first aid posts. Keeping beach goers safe from ‘stingers’ is a massive undertaking for the Australian Authorities.  

Mistakenly thought of as being a jellyfish, Physalia is in fact an interdependent colony of four types of polyps more closely related to coral. Their stings can paralyse fish and cause humans intense pain, swelling and inflammation to the affected area lasting two to three days. However, depending on an individual casualty’s health, propensity to allergic reactions and the degree of envenomation, Physalia stings can prove fatal for some people. 

Arriving at Seaton, the senses were bombarded by omens of the imminent storm about to hit land. The wind whipped up a blizzard of stinging sand and a decaying dolphin carcass just yards from the sea wall made for a sombre welcome. 

Rarely does a trip to the beach fail to lift the spirits. However, against the deafening backdrop of menacing wind and angry sea, the sight of washed up seabird carcasses and hideous plastic pollution entwined in beached seaweed created a powerful sense of foreboding. Storm Brendan was on his way, what else was he going to bring to our shores…?

Australians have a nickname for Physalia, they call them ‘bluebottles’. It was mulling this thought over that helped me to get my eye in. On the western edge of the beach, at the top of the sandy slope looking over the outgoing tide, something looked out of place. 

Just like the nickname suggests, a flash of curved blue caught my eye. Was it a piece of litter or a Physalia? A short walk to investigate revealed the first man-o-war I have ever laid eyes on. Deep, almost sapphire, blue tentacles were the first giveaway, followed by the shocking pink streak across the crest of the float. 

Photo’s taken, I continued along the west side of the beach between the river and the shore whereupon I found a second specimen. No pink streak was visible this time and in the absence of a decent pair of gloves or stick, I wasn’t about to risk turning or moving it for a better shot!

Dead or alive, a man o’ war can sting. Dogs are vulnerable to being stung. Detached tentacles can even remain potent for some weeks and, of course, will be much harder to spot than an intact specimen. With this in mind I decided the best option was to leave well alone. 

Upon returning home and researching some more, I was struck by a troubling paradox. On one hand the biology of Physalia is absolutely fascinating. For example, the extraordinary sizes they can grow to and how their float can be inflated to act as a sail to propel the creature through the Oceans. The element of risk to us creates a little fear and excitement adding to the intrigue.

However, I couldn’t help but also try to rationalise the implications of Physalia coming ashore to our coast. Is this a freak ‘one off’ courtesy of Storm Brendan? Or is this a combination of stormy weather and warmer seas and more likely to become common place? A cursory search of the internet suggests Physalia is being reported in our waters more.

If this is the case, the implications of sharing our waters with them could be significant and require changes in the way we use our beaches for recreation. However, a cursory internet search is by no means definitive, watch this space for future articles seeking more informed answers to these questions!

In the meantime, be aware that post Storm Brendan and ahead of Ciara, the next named storm, Physalia have been seen and snapped on beaches from Seaton to Whitsand Bay. It’s entirely possible they could also land around Plymouth or on the Devon side of the Tamar Valley.

Dog walkers and winter beach walkers would do well to keep a beady eye out for blue bottles, for the Man-O-War may be on the march!

Sources & Further Reading

Here are two fascinating web resources to discover more about the Portuguese man-o-war, Animal Corner and the Marine Life Information Network. 

The Divers Alert Network (DAN) contains interesting information about the life cycle and, crucially, what to do in the event of a Physalia sting. 

Further to the DAN first aid advice (above) and other online research, it becomes clear that medical attention should always be sought following a sting and for dogs veterinary treatment should be considered essential. 

Be aware of the risks of severe allergic reaction to a sting and the possible requirement to treat as a medical emergency by dialling 999.