Venomous Portuguese man-of-wars have washed ashore at several South Fork ocean beaches this past weekend, the result, scientists say, of a dominant south wind that pushed them landward.
About a dozen of the tropical and subtropical jellyfish-like creatures washed up in Amagansett starting Friday and about a half-dozen in Montauk, where one sting was reported over the radio, said East Hampton Town Chief Lifeguard John Ryan Jr. Additional man-of-wars appeared in Montauk on Monday morning. In Southampton Town, three were found on Tiana Beach in East Quogue on Friday afternoon, and others showed up in Southampton Village and Sagaponack over the weekend and into Monday, said Southampton Town Trustee Eric Shultz.
The man-of-war—a siphonophone, or animal made up of a colony of organisms, has long, thin tentacles that can extend 165 feet below the surface and are covered in venom-filled nematocysts used to paralyze and kill fish and small creatures. Man-of-wars, so named because their gas-filled, balloon-like polyp, which sits atop the water and resembles an old warship, are often found drifting in warm ocean waters.
“They’re really not that rare, but they’re rare inshore,” said Chris Paparo, a naturalist and new director of the Stony Brook Southampton Marine Science Center, adding that he typically sees them 12 or 15 miles offshore. “They have no way to propel themselves. They’re at the mercy of the currents and the wind.”
Christopher Gobler, Ph.D., a professor of marine sciences at Stony Brook University, said it is not unheard of for the man-of-war to make it this far north, but that it is earlier in the year than usual. They are typically brought to the East End via the Gulf Stream, whose eddies intruding into local waters are more common when the ocean reaches its maximum temperature in August, he said.
A lot of tropical fish, such as butterflyfish, drift into local waters on the Gulf Stream, Mr. Paparo noted.
“Their tentacles give a nasty sting, even if separated from their body, so if those blue tentacles are seen, even washed up on a beach, stay away,” Dr. Gobler said.
In people, man-of-war stings cause excruciating pain, but are not fatal, said Mr. Ryan.
“It will create a welt like somebody’s whipped you,” he said, adding, “Someone might swim up to it thinking it’s a balloon and get stung 4 feet away from it.”
Treatment for man-of-war stings involves pouring cold salt- or fresh water, removing the stinger, and, if one is allergic, possibly an EpiPen, he said, noting how it differs from jellyfish sting treatment, which entails applying meat tenderizer or vinegar.
The recent southwest swell pushed warmer Gulf Stream waters to shore, heating up the local water temperature 5 degrees, Mr. Ryan said. He said he last saw man-of-wars locally in 2006.
Mr. Ryan encouraged swimmers to always swim at lifeguard-protected beaches.