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It's jellyfish season in the bays - August 1, 2013

Well, we’re in the thick of summer, full hotels, warm temperatures, warm water, hot sand and jellyfish! Yep, if you look closely into the waters, you will see we’re now at the peak of jellyfish season. Fortunately, our coastal bays don’t experience the large flotillas of jellyfish as much as our sister bay the Chesapeake Bay, but we still have them.

Like mosquitoes, the weather helps determine how many appear in the bays and ocean. Hot and dry conditions raise the temperature and salinity of the water, which, in turn, creates an ideal breeding ground for many jellyfish.

Brainless, eyeless and without a spinal cord, sea nettles and other jellyfish, lumped together as “gelatinous zooplankton” are among the more primitive forms of life in the bay and ocean. Jellyfish were around long before the dinosaurs.

Jellyfish use their tentacles to capture and paralyze their prey, which consists of small fish, shrimp and other jellyfish. Not strong swimmers, they travel by drifting in the bay and ocean currents propelling themselves forward by contracting their bells.

According to an article written by Dr. Jennifer E. Purcell, when employed by the University of Maryland System Center for Environmental and Estuarine Studies, there are two types of large jellyfish that often occur in ocean waters off Ocean City, the Moon Jellyfish in the summer months and the Lion’s Mane Jellyfish, which occurs primarily during the winter.

She describes the Moon Jelly (Aurelia aurita), as “a clear, flattened disk, with numerous small tentacles around the edge, and a pink four-leaf clover design in the middle. This species has a very mild sting and poses no threat to swimmers.” These are those large jelly blobs you see washed up on the shoreline. An interesting note, males have white moons and females have pink moons.

The Lion’s Mane jellyfish (Cyanea capillata), which Purcell describes as “brown in color, and has longer tentacles hanging from the edge of its swimming disk and from the middle. This species has a potent sting, and while it is not dangerous to swimmers, it is very unpleasant to encounter.” You will also spot these two species in the bays as well, more so in the Sinepuxent, Isle of Wight and Chincoteague bays as they are closest to the ocean inlets.

Within the bays, the most common jellyfish is the sea nettle (Chrysaora quinquecirrha), a white, umbrella-shaped orb that grows to about four inches in diameter. With up to 24 tentacles, it's also the one most responsible for stinging swimmers. I always wondered what the difference is between a sea nettle and a jellyfish. Well, the sea nettle is a genus — a category of jellyfish like a house cat is to a lion.

Some other jellyfish are seen less often in the coastal waters include the Mushroom Cap Jellyfish (Rhopilema verrilli). It has a deep swimming bell without tentacles, and is creamy white with darker markings on the sturdy central tentacle structures. The Cabbage Head or Cannonball Jellyfish (Stomolophus meleaqris) is like a white softball, or larger, and has a short, hard tentacle structure in the middle. Neither of these jellyfish sting swimmers. The Portuguese man of war (Physalia physalis) very seldom is seen off beaches north of Cape Hatteras. It is a type of jellyfish that floats at the water’s surface by means of a gas-filled blue float. Beneath the float are extremely long tentacles, which have a powerful sting.

Despite this dubious status, jellyfish and their relatives play an integral role in the ecosystem. Many of these animals, closely related to corals and anemones, can be important grazers and keep some of the estuary’s smaller animals from overexpanding their numbers.

And if you wind up tangling with a jelly, according to “Jellyfish: Studying Summer’s Unwelcome Visitors in Maryland Marine Notes” newsletter there are several things you can do if you get stung. If bits or pieces of tentacles are still on the skin, pour alcohol or baby powder on the area.

Alcohol will stabilize the nematocyst (this is the stinging cells that injects the toxins) so that it will not be triggered. Powders do the same by drying the cells out.

Next apply diluted ammonia, sodium bicarbonate, vinegar or meat tenderizer to the area to relieve the pain. Meat tenderizer is one of the best sources of relief from stings. Add a small amount of water to the meat tenderizer to make a paste and smear it on the inflamed area. Meat tenderizer is an enzyme that breaks down proteins. Jellyfish toxin is made of protein and is consequently destroyed by the meat tenderizer.
 

Sandi Smith is the development and marketing coordinator at Maryland Coastal Bays Program. 


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