Poisonous jellyfish hit popular Okinawa beaches
August 1, 2004
CHATAN, Okinawa — Bathers are getting stung and Okinawa beaches are closing due to the early return this summer of the Habu Kurage, or stinger jellyfish.
The emergency room of the U.S. Naval Hospital at Camp Lester has treated nine jellyfish sting cases since the beginning of July, just a fraction of the cases seen in local hospitals, according to the Okinawa Department of Health.
So far, the poisonous jellyfish, named after Okinawa’s venomous viper, the Habu snake, has stung 71 people. That’s 16 more than reported in July 2003 and only 10 less than the entire season last year.
In 2002 there were 80 reported cases. In 2001, a record-breaking summer, there were 194 cases. Most of the cases occur in Okinawa’s southern islands.
The infestation of Okinawa’s waters usually doesn’t occur until the end of July, but warmer weather in May set the stage for their early arrival.
“The habu jellyfish season this year arrived about one month earlier than the average year,” said Tatsuo Omija, a senior researcher for the prefecture’s Public Health and Environmental Research Institute. “When the water temperature exceeds 20 C (68 F), the jellyfish start to spawn.
“It happened in May this year, while the temperature normally does not go up to that point before June,” he said.
Jellyfish don’t attack swimmers, Omija said. But they will sting anything that comes close.
“They don’t come to attack you,” he said. “It is the human who approaches their territory.”
Many Okinawa beaches have protective nets keeping most of the jellyfish out, but the smaller ones do get through. So far this year, Itoman Beach in southern Okinawa has been closed for a week after 15 people were stung.
Other beaches, including Araha and Sunset beaches in Chatan, near Camps Foster and Lester and Kadena Air Base, closed for several days while lifeguards harvested small jellyfish that slipped in through the nets.
At Araha Beach on Thursday, lifeguard Matsu Gushiken joined others in a snorkel search for the nearly transparent creatures.
“I’m pretty sure we’ll open by this weekend,” he said. “This beach is one of the most popular beaches in the area. It’s summer and people don’t understand when you tell them they can’t swim at their favorite beach.”
Nearby, Barbara Owens and her son watched the lifeguards collect the jellyfish. “Wow, they are so small,” said Owens, who lives on Kadena Air Base.
Okinawa health officials caution people to restrict their swimming to beaches equipped with netting.
“However, netting is a far from perfect solution,” Omija said. “Having some slip through is unavoidable. But it is much safer to swim in an encircled area.”
He said the habu kurage on the main island of Okinawa are usually concentrated in the waters off the central west coast, primarily in Ginowan and Chatan.
“The jellyfish congregate in areas, like ports, where they can find shelter and survive typhoons,” he said. “This makes a beach near a fishing port or a marina a high-risk zone.”
“Most beaches managed by municipal governments or private hotels are protected by habu kurage nets,” said Tsuyoshi Kubota of the health department. “Of the cases so far this year, about 75 percent occurred when there was no netting.
“But that does not mean that beaches with netting are completely safe.”
Stings can be no worse than a wasp sting to life threatening. A 5-year-old Okinawa girl remains hospitalized in serious condition a week after she was stung in Itoman, according to health officials.
The average habu kurage is palm-sized and bell shaped, with an umbrella about 4-inches high and tentacles that can be as long as 60 inches. They are nearly transparent and hard to detect.
“The best way to avoid serious stings is to cover your body with protective clothing as much as possible when you go into the water,” Omija said. “And Avoid the areas where they are.”
People who have been stung by the habu kurage say they felt a sharp pain and the affected area swelled.
— Mark Rankin contributed to this report.
If you are stung
Lt. Robert E. Comeau of the U.S. Naval Hospital’s preventative medicine department recommended the following steps be taken for a jellyfish sting:
• Leave the water immediately.• Do not rub the affected area.• Do not wash with freshwater. Instead, apply vinegar to the affected area and remove any pieces of tentacles from the skin.• Cool off with ice or cold water and seek medical attention at the emergency room.