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Bay sea nettles leave lasting impression

by Lisa Hinton-Valdrighi

I cried the day I was baptized off the shores of Morattico in the Rappahannock River, not because I was particularly moved by the moment, although I was. I cried because we’d stopped for the baptism in the middle of a nest of sea nettles and they’d feasted on my tender 10-year-old flesh.

When I emerged from the water to greet my family, all with cameras and congratulations ready, I pulled up my white dress to reveal crisscrossing red marks from ankle to hip. 

It was July and jellyfish time in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

With warmer water temperatures come the pesky macrozooplankton that are a menace to swimmers.

The largest of the planktonic animals in the Bay, jellyfish are floating, gelatinous animals spreading tentacles with stinging cells. It’s when those tentacles wrap around swimmers that the pain occurs.

The jellyfish most recognized and most abundant in the Chesapeake Bay in the summer is the sea nettle (Chrysaora auinquecirrha). Although it can be found from the Gulf of Mexico up the east coast of the U.S., its numbers in the Bay are unequaled elsewhere. White in color, its smooth bell grows to about four inches in diameter and may have up to 24 stinging tentacles. It results in the most stings each year. 

The moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) is the largest jellyfish found in the Bay and can grow to about 12 inches in diameter. Hundreds of short tentacles hang from the bell.

The lion’s mane jellyfish (Cyanea capillata) is most common during the winter and has long tentacles and a potent sting.

Comb jellies are very small, usually three to five inches long, and don’t sting, but play an important role in the Chesapeake Bay food web, eating fish eggs and larvae.

Summer sea nettles, which are a nuisance to swimmers, emerge when the water temperature reaches 78 degrees. They occur during a narrow range of temperature, when the water is 78 to 86 degrees. They also like brackish water (10 to 16 parts per thousand), that is water that is saltier than fresh water but not as salty as sea water. So cold spring temperatures and heavy rains keep nettles down. So does a particularly dry summer when the Bay and rivers have a high salt content.

Although jellyfish propel themselves by expanding and contracting their bells, they aren’t strong swimmers and move with the winds and currents.


Fans of the sitcom Friends remember the infamous episode when Monica got stung by the jellyfish and the resulting cure. Chandler peed on her.

Urine is one of those old wives tales remedies to a jellyfish sting. But for those who’d rather have a cure from a bottle, there’s Jellyfish Squish, marketed a few years ago by most chain drugstores. Although it didn’t claim to take the pain away 100 percent, the bottle did boast that 86 percent of users felt little or no pain at all after applying.

Antihistamine cream is good for excessive redness and swelling or hives.

Otherwise, use what’s on hand to ease the pain. A few home cures include beach sand, apple cider vinegar, meat tenderizer, urine, castor oil, aloe gel, rubbing alcohol, diluted ammonia, baking soda and even vodka.

Cold packs seldom help. And never put fresh water on a sting. It makes it burn more.

To prevent a jellyfish sting, don’t swim with them or wear Lycra or pantyhose. There’s even a sting protector, SafeSea, which claims to protect against the stings of most jellyfish and even protects against sunburn. Wiping down with petroleum jelly is also a way to protect skin against stingers.

And remember, beached jellyfish and dislodged stinging cells can continue to sting, so avoid touching any masses on the beach.

Although painful, stings from jellyfish, particularly the species present in the Chesapeake Bay region, are rarely life-threatening. The biggest concern would be an allergic reaction.

posted 07.01.2010

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