Warmer water means more jellyfish at coast

MYRTLE BEACH -- Richard Peak has been surfing all his life and not once had he ever been stung by a jellyfish -- until three weeks ago.

The 48-year-old, originally from Atlantic City, N.J., was surfing near the Cherry Grove Fishing Pier in North Myrtle Beach when a Portuguese man-of-war wrapped its tentacles around Peak's leg.

"I thought it was the leash on my board, but it was tentacles," said Peak, who grew up on the beach. "It felt like a blow torch. Ironically, I've lived in these waters and never got stung before the other day," he said.

Peak is among many beachgoers who have felt the sting of a jellyfish this season. Warmer than usual ocean temperatures along the 60 miles of Grand Strand beaches and coastal North Carolina has meant a boom in jellyfish, which has been bad news for swimmers, according to some area beach officials.

National beaches are also seeing high numbers of jellyfish on the sand and in the water. Marine biologists blame the overabundance of jellyfish on several factors, including global warming, the over-fishing of their predators, such as tuna, and pollution such as runoff from lawn fertilizer, according to a CBS News report.

In South Carolina, the Portuguese man-of-war is very rare, said David Whitaker, assistant deputy director of the marine resources division of the state Department of Natural Resources.

Propelled by wind and ocean currents, they sometimes drift into nearshore waters of South Carolina, DNR officials said.

The two species most common in the area are cannonball jellyfish and mushroom jellyfish, said Anna Martin, spokeswoman for the state DNR.

The sea nettle and the sea wasp, known as the box jelly, also frequent South Carolina waters during the summer. Both can give people a sting and are common in August and September in the area, Whitaker said. They are usually to blame for local stings.

"It's a natural reproductive cycle this time of the year that depends on the temperature of the water," Martin said. "They could be producing more this year. And it is seasonality with warmer water temperatures. There are more in the water because of one of those two factors."

Horry County beach officials have seen several cases of jellyfish stings on the beach in unincorporated areas of the county, but haven't had many of the jellyfish wash up on the beach creating a problem, said Lt. Darris Fowler of Horry County police Beach Patrol.

That could change, however.

"With a weather change and strong currents, we can be flooded with them next week," Fowler said.

Most jellyfish harmless

Environmental experts say most jellyfish that inhabit South Carolina waters are harmless to humans, but there are a few that require caution. To learn about and how to identify the different species, please visit the S.C. Department of Natural Resources' Web site at: www.dnr.sc.gov/marine/pub/seascience/jellyfi.html

Common varieties

The two most common jellyfish in South Carolina are:

• Cannonball Jelly: Also known as the jellyball, and the cabbage head jelly. Large numbers of this species appear near the coast and in the mouths of estuaries during the summer and fall. Cannonball jellies can be easily identified by their round white bells that are bordered below by a brown or purple band of pigment. They have no tentacles, but they do have a firm, chunky feeding apparatus formed by the joining of the oral arms. Cannonballs rarely grow larger than 8 to 10 inches in diameter. It is one of the least venomous of jellyfish.

• Mushroom Jelly: The mushroom jelly is often mistaken for the cannonball jelly, but it differs in many ways. The larger mushroom jelly, growing 10 to 20 inches in diameter, lacks the brown band associated with the cannonball and is much flatter and softer. Like the cannonball, the mushroom jelly has no tentacles and chunky feeding apparatus, but it possesses long fingerlike appendages hanging from the feeding apparatus. The mushroom jelly does not represent a hazard to humans.

Source: The S.C. Department of Natural Resources