Untamed Lowcountry

A dozen Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish spotted on Hilton Head today. Beachgoers, beware

Portuguese men of war are hitting SC beaches. Here’s what you need to know.

Sullivan's Island, South Carolina, is warning tourists ahead of the Memorial Day weekend to be on the lookout for Portuguese man-of-war and men-of-war. Several have been seen on the community's popular beaches.
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Sullivan's Island, South Carolina, is warning tourists ahead of the Memorial Day weekend to be on the lookout for Portuguese man-of-war and men-of-war. Several have been seen on the community's popular beaches.

Just three days after the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources issued a warning to swimmers about Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish washing up on beaches in the Palmetto state, local officials spotted a dozen of the highly venomous creatures along Hilton Head shores.

Sea Turtle Patrol Hilton Head Island officials said Monday they saw around a dozen men-of-wars during their morning patrol on beaches stretching between mid-island and the south end scattered mostly around the high-tide line.

Unlike the thousands of other jellyfish that often clutter the Hilton Head shores, the Portuguese man-of-war can deliver “painfully venomous” stings, even when they are dead, according to National Geographic. Beachgoers are urged not to touch them and avoid stepping on them at all costs.

“You should steer clear of these highly venomous relatives of jellyfish both in the water and ashore, as even a dead man-of-war has a sting strong enough to sometimes require medical attention,” SCDNR officials warned.

Beach Shore Service operations manager Mike Wagner told The Island Packet lifeguards have spotted “maybe a couple dozen (men-of-war) over the course of the last week.”

Man-of-war jellyfish can actually sting for weeks after they wash ashore, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Fortunately, the bright-colored creatures are unique-looking and easy to spot. Portuguese men-of-war got their name because they look like “an 18th-century Portuguese warship under full sail,” NOAA said.

“The man of war is recognized by its balloon-like float, which may be blue, violet, or pink and rises up to six inches above the waterline,” according to NOAA.

Often mistaken for jellyfish, these creatures are much more complicated. They are “made up of a colony of organisms working together,” according to National Geographic.

Even more terrifying, men-of-war appear to only be a foot long, but have tentacles beneath the surface that can reach up to 165 feet, National Geographic said.

If stung by one of these tentacles, humans can experience a wide variety of painful symptoms that can last several days.

Most stings result in “red welts accompanied by swelling and moderate to severe pain,” according to Divers Alert Network. Severe symptoms include vomiting, muscle cramps, and even cardiac and respiratory issues if allergic.

The venomous creatures are rare in South Carolina. In Florida, Portuguese men-of-war are more common in the winter time. The Sun Sentinel reported 204 people were treated for stings during one day in Hollywood, Florida, in February 2018.

However, the stings are rarely deadly, NOAA reports.

Shore Beach Services reported the first Portuguese man-of-war spotting on May 10, and officials warned that more would follow.

“Typically when we have them, it’s not like there’s just one,” Wagner told The Island Packet at the time. “If we got one, we might get a dozen more.”

Men-of-war are fairly predictable creatures in that they travel by the ocean’s strong winds and currents in legions of 1,000, according to NOAA.

Wagner said Hilton Head sees anywhere between zero and a few dozen men-of-war annually. If stung, Wagner previously told The Island Packet to flush the sting area with ocean water or hot water immediately. Some stings require medical attention.

Sea nettle jellyfish are responsible for the most stings on Hilton Head. Shore Beach Service lifeguards on the island have seen up to 600 jellyfish stings a day, mostly from sea nettles.

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Mandy Matney is an award-winning journalist and self-proclaimed shark enthusiast from Kansas. She worked for newspapers in Missouri and Illinois before she realized Midwestern winters are horrible, then moved to Hilton Head in 2016. She is the breaking news editor at the Island Packet.