On winter’s east winds they come, floating sapphire jewels with a venomous sting that lasts long after they’ve washed ashore.
Portuguese man-of-war, so named for the ship-shaped balloon that keeps them buoyant, have been spotted on Palm Beach County beaches in recent weeks with lifeguards warning to steer clear of the grape-colored sea creatures.
“We fly the purple flags pretty frequently in winter,” said Town of Palm Beach Ocean Rescue lifeguard Taylor Jantz, referring to the caution flag alerting to the presence of threatening beach pests. “While a jellyfish sting can feel like a mosquito bite, a man-of-war can create a much harsher reaction.”
Tentacles stacked with coiled, barbed tubes of venom stream out as far as 100 feet from the man-of-war’s gas-filled sail, packing a sting that can swell lymph nodes, cause nausea, and, in extreme cases, cause trouble breathing.
Earlier this month, a woman swimming at Phil Foster Park in Riviera Beach became entangled in man-of-war tentacles and had to be taken to the hospital, according to Steve Kaes, a training officer for Palm Beach County Ocean Rescue South District.
“She was having trouble breathing,” Kaes said. “The more parts of your body it covers, the more stressful it is.”
The man-of-war uses its venomous tentacles to paralyze and kill small fish.
Although often confused with a jellyfish, the man-of-war is actually a siphonophore, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A siphonophore is comprised of different organisms with various functions all working together as one.
While serious reactions to a man-of-war sting are rare, if the tentacles get wrapped around a person, they can stick to the skin, causing lines of red welts that can last for several days. Tentacles can still cause stings after being broken up in rough surf or even after the man-of-war washes ashore and dies.
Surface high pressure over the Eastern Seaboard and western Atlantic Ocean during winter months contributes to persistent east-northeasterly winds, said Robert Molleda, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Miami.
“These high pressure areas are typically stronger in the winter, so that often leads to stronger east winds,” Molleda said.
With winds turned north following Tuesday’s cold front, there weren’t as many man-of-war on Palm Beach’s Midtown beach Wednesday, but Jantz said she had buried several to keep them away from people strolling the shore where they often get caught in the wrack line.
“Avoid the tentacles, they can stretch out a long, long way,” Kaes said. “The most important thing is to tell children they aren’t toys.”
Tara Smith, of Delray Beach, said she was at a private beach Monday when she noticed her 6-year-old son Harrison shoveling something blue into a pile.
“I thought it was strange and from a distance thought they were water bottles,” Smith said. “But my younger daughter Lexi and him ran to go get me and I saw he was shoveling a ton of man-of-war into a pile.”
Smith said her children weren’t stung, but that the beach was littered with man-of-war.
While lifeguards write on beach condition chalkboards when man-of-war are present, Jantz said people often don’t know what they are or what to look for. Sharks they understand, but the purple critters on the beach seem less threatening.
Children will pop the sails like balloons, which can sting their hands or feet, Jantz said
“Whether they are dry or wet, those toxings are still living,” Jantz said. “They’re beautiful to look at, but can really hurt.”
The Florida Poison Control Center recommends treating the sting by washing the area with sea water, vinegar or alcohol, and scraping off any remaining tentacles.