FEATURES,  View from the Water

Why I was happy to get stung by a jellyfish

Until this weekend, I had never been stung by a jellyfish. I’ve swum many times in water where jellyfish have been present, I’ve got up close and taken pictures of jellyfish and I’ve been swimming with people while they’ve been stung, but until now I’ve always escaped.
Sadly, any fantasy that I had a super power warding off jellyfish stings was painfully shattered this weekend but (and perhaps strangely) I was actually quite pleased to get my first jellyfish sting.
This is how it happened. I was taking part in Swim the Island, in Bergeggi, Italy. It’s a beautiful swim around a marine protected environment and the picturesque Isola di Bergeggi. The water is dazzlingly clear and you get to see plenty of fish – including, this year, jellyfish. This was the fifth year of the event and it has grown spectacular from around 250 swimmers to around 2500. Last weekend it felt like the local town had been taken over by swimmers and the event also featured a live open air concert from swimmer and musician Carina Bruwer.
Previous events have never been troubled by jellyfish so I wasn’t expecting any but I did have some warning. A swimmer who’d been out earlier in the day mentioned he’d seen a couple but they were deep down and not troubling anyone. Early on in my swim, I saw what he meant as I swam over a few delicate-looking mauve stingers.
I didn’t see the ones that hit me (or should that be the ones that I hit?). The first one got my right shoulder. Milliseconds later others hit my leg, back, hip and left armpit. It was like a series of electric shocks and then a burning pain.
You never know how you might react to your first jellyfish sting. I was relieved I didn’t panic. Perhaps having read so many stories about other people who had been stung and lived to tell the tale helped me stay calm and keep swimming. I was also relieved it hadn’t hit my face but made a conscious effort to keep my mouth closed while under the water from then on having heard about one swimmer who got stung in his mouth.
Over the next couple of minutes I paid close attention to how I felt. I know some people can have allergic reactions to jellyfish stings and I wanted to reassure myself I wasn’t one of them. The pain was decreasing and neither my swimming nor breathing was impaired, so all good there.
I then tried to turn the experience into something positive. I’ve always had a fear of jellyfish stings (and will continue to dislike them) but these first stings have removed some of the unnerving uncertainty about being stung. Obviously there are many kinds of jellyfish and some have worse stings than others but at least I know more now about how it feels than before.
Secondly, many of the swimmers I know have tales to tell about jellyfish encounters. Collecting my first sting feels a bit like winning my first 10m swimming badge – another milestone in my open water swimming journey and another experience ticked off.
By the time I’d got through thinking all of this the pain had almost gone. When I finished the swim I was most disappointed I didn’t have bright red welts scarring my shoulder as evidence of my encounter. Fortunately, a few red blotches appeared later and I was able to trade damage reports with other swimmers, some of which had been affected much more than me.
When you swim in open water there’s always a risk of something unpleasant happening. It’s the price we pay for the joy of swimming in nature. Jellyfish are part of that nature (and often a beautiful part of it) so we have to accept we may sometimes encounter them. Here are a few tips on dealing with them, based on my limited experience.

  1. Put Vaseline on your body. I don’t know how much this helps but I had put a fair amount of Vaseline on my shoulders to reduce chafing (by my chin, when I turn to breathe). My experience sounded and looked less painful than others I heard about and saw, so maybe the Vaseline helped.
  2. Alternatively (or additionally), try a sunblock that contains jellyfish repellent.
  3. If you get stung, listen to your body. If you feel any difficulty in breathing, seek help immediately.
  4. Keep swimming if you can. Hopefully this will remove you from the jellyfish whereas if you stop and tread water you may get stung again.
  5. Think something positive about how you will feel having completed the swim despite being stung and how it gives you another story to tell (or blog to write).
  6. Concentrate on swimming to distract yourself from the discomfort of any stings.
  7. Don’t let jellyfish put you off swimming. They’re beautiful creatures that don’t mean you any harm.

Image: Mauve stinger Alberto Romeo www.romeofotosub.it

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I created Outdoor Swimmer in 2011 (initially as H2Open Magazine) as an outlet for my passion for swimming outdoors. I've been a swimmer and outdoor swimmer for as long as I remember. Swimming has made a huge difference to my life and I want to share its joys and benefits with as many people as possible. I am also the author of Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 a Year and I provide one-to-one support to swimmers through Swim Mentoring.