Australian dives face-first into deadly jellyfish

AP News
Posted: Dec 03, 2009 10:23 PM

A man dove face-first into an extremely venomous, peanut-sized jellyfish in waters off northeast Australia and medics flew him to a hospital intensive care unit to treat the potentially fatal sting, officials said Friday.

The 29-year-old man, whose name has not been released, was on a yacht Thursday off northeast Queensland state. As a precaution, he was wearing a full-length "stinger suit," a lightweight version of a wetsuit that covers everything but the face, feet and hands and helps protect against venomous jellyfish that are common in northern Australia's waters during the Southern Hemisphere summer.

But when he dove into the water near South Molle Island, he was immediately stung in the face by a potentially lethal Irukandji jellyfish, Central Queensland Helicopter Rescue Service spokeswoman Leonie Hansen said. He was taken back to the island, where a rescue team rushed to his aid.

"The crew said he was shivering and in shock and in a great deal of pain," Hansen said.

The man, from the Queensland capital Brisbane, was in serious condition Friday at Mackay Base Hospital in Mackay, 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) north of Brisbane, a hospital spokeswoman said.

Australia is well-known for its myriad deadly creatures, but the Irukandji remains rather mysterious. It is a distant relative of the more notorious and widely feared box jellyfish, the sting of which can kill an adult within 2 minutes. But the Irukandji is virtually impossible to see and is tiny enough to pass through nets meant to keep jellyfish away from popular swimming spots.

The jellyfish's sting can lead to "Irukandji syndrome," a set of symptoms that includes shooting pains in the muscles and chest, vomiting, restlessness and anxiety. Some symptoms can last for more than a week, and the syndrome can occasionally lead to a rapid rise in blood pressure and heart failure.

In 2002, two tourists were killed in separate incidents after being stung by the tiny creatures off northeast Australia _ the first recorded Irukandji fatalities. But because the jellyfish leave almost no mark on their victims, scientists believe they are responsible for many deaths that were attributed as drownings or heart attacks, said marine biologist Lisa Gershwin, who has spent 11 years studying the animals.

"It's extremely serious," Gershwin said. "One of the very worst stings I've ever seen _ sting as in permanent heart damage _ was just three dots on the finger."

The most common Irukandji measures just 0.4 inches (10 millimeters) in length and has tentacles as thin as a strand of hair that can grow up to 3 feet (1 meter), Gershwin said. Scientists still don't know whether it's the Irukandji's body or tentacles that cause Irukandji syndrome, she said.

Even more discomforting for swimmers: there is no antivenom, and people generally don't realize they've been stung at first. The initial sting causes little pain, and it may be up to half an hour before a victim starts to feel the effects.

And those effects, Gershwin says, can be disastrous, with some stings causing blood pressures to soar as high as 280 over 180.

The creatures are found worldwide, from North Wales to Cape Town in South Africa, Gershwin said.