Irukandji stings rise as jellyfish season hangs around longer in southern Queensland
A jar with a Irukandji jellyfish found off the coast of Fraser Island in January last year. (ABC News: Casey Briggs)
Nineteen people have been taken to hospital with suspected Irukandji stings in Queensland so far this season, which is almost double the 10-year average, the Australian Marine Stinger Advisory Service (AMSAS) says.
This includes eight people flown by rescue helicopter from Fraser Island off south-east Queensland in the past two weeks.
Associate Professor Jamie Seymour, from James Cook University, said the calm and warm conditions at Fraser Island had made it a hot spot for the irukandji.
“We’ve certainly seen this over the years that the numbers of jellyfish that we’re getting down there seems to be increasing, and the length of time they’re down there seems to be increasing,” he said.
“If you look 10 to 12 years ago when we first found them down there, we only find them for a three- to four-week period.
“Now you’re getting stings and people stung over a two- to two-and-a-half-month period.”
Some of the Irukandji jellyfish caught on Far North Queensland beaches during the 2015-16 stinger season. (ABC Far North: Mark Rigby)
‘Shaping up to be a pretty bad year’
AMSAS director Lisa Gershwin said it was “shaping up to be a pretty bad year”.
“You can’t really say there is a hot spot this year — they [Irukandji] have been up and down the coast,” she said.
“There have been clusters at Fraser Island, there have been clusters at the Whitsundays, there have been clusters in Cairns region, and stings in between.”
Dr Gershwin said the weather conditions were only part of the reason for the increase.
“Certainly it has been really hot, and I think that may have something to do with it,” she said.
“We have seen a lot of onshore winds, that certainly must have something to do with it.
“Also natural variability from year to year, so if you think flowers in your garden — some years they go gangbusters and other years you are practically begging them to bloom — that’s just the nature or nature, things have variability from year to year.
“The last couple of years have been less than we expected [of irukandji], so it may just be that nature is making up for it by more this year.”
Dr Gershwin has been stung twice by Irukandji.
“I have never had Irukandji syndrome — I have been incredibly lucky — stupid, but lucky,” she said.
“For people who have had Irukandji syndrome, it’s pretty bad — 10-out-of-10 on a pain scale, difficulty breathing, nausea and vomiting, profuse drenching sweating, a feeling of impending doom.
“Most people make a full and complete recovery, a fraction require life support, some end up with permanent heart damage or permanent neurological damage.”
Winds whip bluebottles onto Queensland beaches
“They are directly at the mercy of the winds,” Dr Gershwin said.
“There are armadas [of bluebottles] out there [in the open ocean], with squillions of bluebottles and because they have got that sticky-up sail, when the wind comes up it grabs the ones with the sail going the right way.
“They get blown until at least the wind dies down or they are beached somewhere — the more wind we get the more bluebottles we get.”
Lifeguards on the Gold Coast said the wind conditions meant bluebottles would remain a risk for at least the next few days.
Surf Life Saving Queensland (SLSQ) said that during the past week since December 28, 13,243 bluebottle stings have been treated by lifesavers and lifeguards across Queensland, many at popular beaches on the Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast.
Since December 1, more than 18,000 stings have been recorded in Queensland compared to just more than 6,000 for the same period last year.
Lifeguards on the Gold Coast say wind conditions mean bluebottles will remain a risk for the next few days. (ABC News: Emma Siossian)
Seawater best to wash venom away
Dr Gershwin said the best treatment for bluebottle stings was quite simple.
“The hands-down best remedy for a bluebottle string is the one endorsed by the Australian Resuscitation Council,” she said.
“They recommend you rinse well with seawater to rinse away any of the stinging cells still on the skin that haven’t injected venom yet, and then use hot water or ice for the pain.
“Fresh water will actually force the stinging cells to inject more venom, so you really want to wash them away with the seawater before you apply the ice or hot water.”
Surf Life Saving Queensland recommends people ideally place the affected area in warm water for around 20 minutes, or if there is no warm water available, apply an ice pack.