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The Big Sting: Tales from the Jellyfish Front in the Mediterranean

Especially since the summer of 2006, the jellyfish "bloom" has been increasing in alarming numbers. In Cannes, city officials have been testing a giant net to filter out the "meduses" to no avail
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AIE! What kind of word is that? Well, it means "ouch" in French but I don't like the way it sounds. When I got stung by jellyfish today in the waters off Nice, France I said OUCH loudly in the water. The French people swimming near me understood immediately.

Global warming is an alarming concept, no question, and I believe every word I hear about melting icebergs, rising seas, endangered polar bears and holes in the ozone.

But for me it takes a bite on the arm while swimming in what was once the most heavenly sea on earth to make the political truly personal.

My friend at the local tabac near where I live in Nice, who's also a big swimmer like me, warned me in May.

"We've got a window of three weeks," he said. "Then - watch out. They'll be here."

"They" are the mauve stingers, the hateful jellyfish that used to be a fairly rare and occasionally cyclical occurrence in the waters off the French Riviera. But now the jellyfish invasion is a way of life not just along the Cote d'Azur but all over Europe and the planet, from the chilly Irish Sea to Australia.

The new "Jaws" has tentacles, not a dorsal fin. Think the weak dollar is your biggest problem when contemplating your European vacation this year? Think again.

Sixty million jellyfish reportedly swept the seas off Spanish beaches two years ago, stinging 70,000 people, according to this frightening Science Illustrated article.

Jellyfish are beautiful creatures but destructive - termites of the not-so-deep. And they've been around for 500 million years. Fun fact: their mouths doubles as their anuses.

They let their presence be known to me about two minutes after I dove into the pristine-looking, aquamarine waters of the Baie des Anges. Bay of Angels? There were nothing but devils in the sea today. I felt the familiar, scary electric shock on my left arm and a frisson of pain shooting from the shoulder to my wrist.

I tried to continue swimming to the far buoy 350 meters out but once you're stung, the sea no longer feels like your friend. Every tiny piece of algae or plastic bag looks like a potential source of new pain.

I think of my friend Frederic who swims way out, like me, and got stung so badly in the chest a few summers ago he thought he was having a heart attack. He wasn't, but who wants to be out in the water alone and have that happen.

I got out of the water and sat miserably on the towel. I know the drill by now. Look for a rough rock and rub your wounds as if you're grating some cheese.

For more than ten years, and especially since the summer of 2006, the jellyfish "bloom" has been increasing in alarming numbers. Articles about them abound, but nothing gets done. In nearby Cannes, city officials have been testing a giant net to filter out the "meduses" as they are called in French, to no real avail.

Our local newspaper, the Nice-Matin, ran an article last week about a swarm of baby jellyfish that looked like a big dark mass in the town of Villefranche-sur-Mer, the little town just east of Nice.

Last summer, an unusually lucky one for me when I only got a few minor stings, I managed to persuade my less-than-sporty friend Allison in the water. I dove in first and coaxed her in confidently.

Thirty seconds after she submerged herself, she got stung. It was a bad bite, it itched, and she made the mistake of scratching it repeatedly. The wound bothered her all summer.

Some people are tougher. The French, of course. One friend's French ex-husband swims year-round, jellyfish or no jellyfish. "He's got scars all over his body from being stung," my friend reports.

My always-sensible friend Clare is giving up on the sea and heading for the best rooftop hotel pool in Nice.

My hometown of Marblehead, Mass., with its freezing gun-metal gray water that makes your ankles freeze during the two months you can even stand to go in, has never looked better.

I was ready to pack up and fly home today. But I know better. The safe places are getting more and more rare. The dreaded and cunning "jellies" are probably even now holding underwater convocations with plans to invade the North Shore of Boston.

The woods are full of wardens, Jack Kerouac said, and now the seas are full of stingers.

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