Untamed Lowcountry

‘Jellyfish season is upon us:’ Hilton Head flies warning flags for stings at beaches

Sea nettles look beautiful but have a painful sting

Sea nettles are the most common culprit when it comes to jellyfish stings on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. Lifeguards typically record about 600 stings a day this time of year.
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Sea nettles are the most common culprit when it comes to jellyfish stings on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. Lifeguards typically record about 600 stings a day this time of year.

It’s one of the busiest weeks of the year on Hilton Head Island, but Fourth of July beachgoers are likely to see a different kind of flag planted in the sand — a warning flag.

Hilton Head lifeguards at several beaches are flying yellow flags this week to warn of jellyfish stings, according to a Facebook post by the Shore Beach Service lifeguarding agency.

Sea Nettle jellyfish are to blame for most of those stings, according to Mike Wagner, operations manager at Shore Beach. He called the influx of stings “very normal” for this time of year.

“Typically from late June for about a month to eight weeks ... I would tend to call that our jellyfish season,” Wagner said Tuesday.

In the Facebook post, Shore Beach warned “Jellyfish season is upon us.”

Sea Nettles are tough to spot because they don’t float on top of the water like cannonball jellyfish — which are bigger and don’t have dangling tentacles.

“You’re almost never going to see them, but you’re going to feel them,” Wagner said.

Fortunately, the stings lifeguards are seeing on Hilton Head’s beaches now are mild. Sea nettles tend to have a less potent sting, and some people are able to return swimming immediately.

Beach visitors aren’t necessarily going to see the warning flags at every beach on the island.

“We put (the flags) up each day depending on what we’re experiencing. You could have a bunch of stings in the Coligny area, and in Sea Pines beach area we could have zero,” he said. “Not everywhere is going to have them up.”

Lifeguards first saw the spike in stings last week, Wagner said.

What to do if you’re stung by a jellyfish

Colloquially referred to as the “Mike Wagner jellyfish sting spiel,” Wagner said if you’re stung by a jellyfish, flush the area with ocean water, not fresh water.

“Fresh water might make it sting a little more,” he said.

Seek medical attention if swelling or pain persists; recovery can vary from several minutes to several days.

Watch for signs of an allergic reaction. Anesthetic ointment and over-the-counter pain medication may provide some relief.

Types of jellies on Hilton Head Island

There are four main types of jellyfish that live in the waters surrounding Hilton Head Island.

The Cannonball: These jellyfish are easiest to spot because they float on top of the water and wash up in “jellyfish graveyards” in the spring, The Island Packet has previously reported. Cannonball jellyfish don’t sting, Wagner said.

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Cannonball jellyfish are washed up on a Hilton Head beach. The Island Packet

The Sea Nettle: These are the most common stinging jellyfish off the coast of Hilton Head, and have pronounced tentacles. They do not float on the surface, so they can be difficult to spot. A Sea Nettle sting can feel like a burning or stinging sensation, but can cause an allergic reaction.

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A sea nettle swims through an exhibit at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta on July 1, 2018. Lisa Wilson lwilson@islandpacket.com

The Sea Wasp: The boxy-looking Sea Wasp isn’t as common on Hilton Head as cannonballs and sea nettles, Wager said. These have less tentacles, but a more potent sting.

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Bastian Bentlage National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The Portuguese Man-Of-War: A rare, sail-like cluster of tentacles, the man-of-war can have an excruciatingly painful sting even weeks after it’s dead, Wagner told The Island Packet in May. These jellyfish will stick out on the beach for their bright blue and purple bodies. Wagner said lifeguards have reported about 12 men-of-war this year.

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A Portuguese man-of-war National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration Submitted

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Katherine Kokal moved to South Carolina in 2018 after graduating from the University of Missouri and loves everything about the Lowcountry that isn’t a Palmetto Bug. She has won South Carolina Press Association awards for in-depth and government beat reporting. On the weekends, you can find Kati doing yoga and hiking Pinckney Island.
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