Portuguese Man o’ Phwoar

I was sitting down at the beach bar, as many of my stories seem to start, and I was doing the final exam for my PADI Online Emergency Rescue Diver course. It had taken a bit longer than I had expected and it was nearly lunch time, but the growl in my stomach was definitely drowned out by the pull of the sea. I had to go in, just quickly.

I eventually reached question fifty, I think the WiFi was as done with the course as I was, and clicked through to the end. I passed! You needed at least seventy-five percent and I got ninety six so I think that just shows how easy the questions were. I called Cam to tell him and to let him know not to wait for me for lunch if he got hungry. Buoyed up by the satisfaction of completion, I took off the clothes I was wearing over my bikini. I quelled my desires to sprint face first into the sea and started the rather perilous task of trying to rub suncream on my own back (which is probably a good life skill to have if you’re a person likely to go travelling on your own). Once I had reached a satisfactory level of factor fifty coverage, there was nothing stopping me from going in.

I splashed through the shallows and launched myself in as soon as it was physically deep enough to do so, my stomach only just missing the sandy floor. The visibility wasn’t great, as the tide was coming in fast and was bringing all sorts of crap in with it. I could see the surface of the water was covered in a thin layer of some kind of foamy scum. Lovely. I tried not to imagine all of the crud and crap that would be accumulating in my hair.

‘Once I get a bit further out it will all clear up a bit’ I thought and pushed on through the murk. I felt a little stinging cell nip at my arm. You get them quite a lot here. They don’t seem to be attached to any thing large enough to see and they only hurt for a little while. They’re almost like a really geriatric wasp sting.

After swimming for a minute or so through the rough clumps of macro algae and smooth slips of sea grass I thought that the water was already beginning to clear out. The visibility was a bit better and I could have sworn that there was less ‘miscellaneous brown’ at the surface. I felt another stinging cell nick my shoulder. ‘Ooh that’s a big one’ I thought, as the pain rippled along my back. But then it spread, sending fire cascading down my shoulder blade. I spun around but couldn’t see anything in the water, but then again at this point I don’t think I was my most observant. I ripped my bikini strap off of my shoulder and tried to crane my neck round to have a look. I stared down at the tangle of blue tentacle around my strap. Portuguese man o’ war. Fuck.

I immediately turned back towards the shore. The pain was hot and sharp, dancing along my skin and down into the muscle below. Adrenaline kicked in and I swam fast. My brain went into overdrive. I knew some Portuguese man o’ wars could kill people but I was almost certain that these ones weren’t them. Cam and Des would have definitely would have said so if they were. And Cameron had a scar on his arm from a man o’ war and I was pretty sure he’d never gone to hospital for it. No, he just said that the stings hurt like hell but that’s it. Right?

I tried to check myself out as I swam. It hurt a lot but I wasn’t feeling any other symptoms. I wasn’t dizzy or nauseous or breathless. None of my limbs were tingling or numb. After doing the Emergency First Response I knew that for jellyfish stings we’d need to scrape off any remaining stinging cells with a credit card (or the closest thing we could find), pour on white vinegar and immerse it in water as hot as I could stand. I was not too sure how we’d go about that given the sting was on my shoulder but at that point I didn’t really give it too much thought. My prime aim was just getting out of the water.

I reached the sand and ran up the beach. The sting flamed across my shoulder and the pain seemed to bubble up under my skin. My muscles clenched against the white hot needles that scattered themselves down my back. I ran into the bathroom at the beach bar and used the mirror to check the damage. A strand of blue still clung to my suncream-pale skin. I retrieved my bag from where I left it behind the bar and yanked out my phone. I called Cameron.

“Hello?” He said.

“Cam I’m coming up to the house. I’ve just been stung by a fucking man o’ war.” I spat out the words and walked as quickly as I could up to the house.

“On it,” Cam replied and hung up the phone. I clutched my backpack and my bikini, not wanting to put the strap back over my shoulder in case there were more stinging cells tangled up in it. I reached the back steps and Cam ran over with a business card and a bottle of balsamic vinegar. Even through the pain I laughed,

“Cameron please can we use normal vinegar? That balsamic is gonna be so sticky,”

“Sorry it was the first one I could find.” he scraped off the tentacle with the card and I turned around to see it. Even through the pain I was pretty curious to see what it looked like. “Hey there, dog” Cam said, holding it up to the light. I walked briskly into the kitchen and snatched up the white vinegar.

“Would you mind?” I asked, feigning nonchalance while desperately willing him to pour it on as quickly as possible to stop the pain. I flinched as he used a napkin to douse the area. Some fell onto his toes.

“Ah, ow that really stings,” he said. I shot him a death look and he laughed at me. “Kidding,” he said and kept going. The vinegar felt weirdly hot on my skin (‘Chemical reaction?’ My inner nerd asks) and was disappointingly soothing. Not much changed.

“I’d better get an epic scar from this,” I said with a chuckle that died in my mouth. It really hurt. I went into my room and grabbed two Paracetamol tablets and washed them down as fast as I could.

Cameron had been sitting outside eating his lunch and doing our 1500 piece puzzle when I called him so I grabbed some food for myself and went out to join him. It was probably going to be a push to finish it in the remaining four weeks of our expedition at the rate we were going. I turned to leave the kitchen and stopped. I grabbed the chilli paste from the fridge and piled it onto my plate.

“My plan is to distract myself with a new burning sensation,” I said to Cam when I saw him raise an eyebrow at the amount I had taken. This stuff was hot and we joked that although you couldn’t handle it when you arrived, you were thoroughly addicted by the time you left. This was a bit of a problem given that Sheriff (the cook at Des’s house) was the only person who makes it and the recipe is top top secret.

The pain was still there but not so strong now. The heat pulsated below my skin but less intense than before, now more of a smoulder than a flame. We sat puzzling and eating for a little while and the pain began to fade. After a while we walked over to Des’s house to keep going with out marketing work.

We’d had an afternoon of marketing and a TaeKwanDo session with Bavel (he smiled for the first time it was very exciting) which left us all pretty hot and sweaty.

“Yael do you want to come for a snorkel?” I asked, undeterred by my previous experiences.

“Yeah sure,” she said, “Let me just grab my mask,”

“Cam, you coming?”

“Nah I’m gonna walk the dogs with Dad. Are you really going back in?” He asked, concerned maybe for my safety or for my mental state.

“Yeah.” I replied, “I mean what are the odds of it happening again?”

I hadn’t been stung in the previous four weeks of being here and neither had anyone else so I figured I would be fine. I mean I wasn’t going to take any chances; I put on my rash vest and a pair of shorts for protection and we headed down to the beach.

We jumped into the sea and started swimming out. The tide was quite high so, again, the visibility wasn’t great but we pressed on towards clearer waters. I was a little bit jumpy, flinching every time I came into contact with a bristly piece of seaweed and scanning the surface for ominous blue tendrils. ‘Calm down’ I said to myself. ‘Don’t be such a drama queen’. I felt a little stinging cell nip my arm but again told myself to stop being such a wimp and keep swimming. ‘Don’t imagine things that aren’t there. You’re fine’ I thought. But this one was actually quite sore.

I glanced down at my arm.

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.

A blue tentacle ensnared its way around my upper arm, looping across my elbow and down across the smooth skin of my forearm. I twisted my body to try and get away from it but just ended up tangling myself even more. I could really feel it now. The pain licked its way up my arm like a white hot thistle. We were still in shallow water so I stood up and spat out my snorkel.

“CAM!” I shouted and he looked up from the beach, “Can you get the credit card and the vinegar?” I could see him shake his head in disbelief as he dutifully ran back up towards the house.

“What’s going on?” Yael asked, coming towards me.

“Watch out,” I said and pointed down at my arm. “I don’t want you to get stung.”

“What, it happened again?” She said and I could see the surprise on her face even through her mask.

“It bloody well did,” I replied. She came closer and reached towards me as if to pick it off.

“Careful!” I said, “It’ll just sting you as well.” I pulled off my mask and used the tube of the snorkel to pull off the tentacle. I cringed as the stingers dragged across my arm, sending sparks of pain shooting across the tender skin. I started swimming back into shore, trying to navigate my way without getting stung again.

I met Cameron halfway up the stairs to the house, he was carrying the white vinegar and a squeezey bottle of hand lotion. I scraped off what I could using the flat top of the bottle and poured the vinegar all over myself with shaking fingers.

“How the hell did this happen?” Cam asked.

“I don’t know man.” I replied with something that was supposed to be a laugh, but I don’t think he was convinced. I looked longingly back out towards the water.

“You aren’t thinking of going in again, are you?” He asked, slightly incredulous.

“I’m considering it.” I said, “I wanna get back in, but it just seems like the sea doesn’t want me today.” Not going back in would make it the first day I hadn’t been in the sea for at least an hour since arriving. Let me tell you – I need my daily vitamin sea. But even I could get a hint. Once was bad luck. Twice was ridiculous. Going in a third time would just be stupid.

“Maybe try the pool,” Cam said, walking back down to the beach.

I decided that was a good idea. It’s half salt water, half chlorine so I reasoned that it was at least fifty percent sea and that would have to do. I was sure as hell less likely to get stung again.

Although knowing my luck, I’m sure I could manage it.

UPDATE: After a couple days of soreness and itchiness I felt absolutely no ill effects from the stings. I didn’t need any medical attention and it didn’t stop me from doing any of the awesome things we had planned for the next few days.



  • Finishing the Diving Rescue Course
  • Snorkel (cut short by stinging bastards)
  • Marketing – writing the newsletter
  • TaeKwanDo
  • Snorkel part 2 (once more cut short by stinging bastards)
  • An hour of drifting around in the pool
  • Dinner at Des’s house

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