When Jellyfish Attack

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Tarik Tinazay / AFP / Getty

A jellyfish swims in the Mediterranean Sea.

O.K., so they don't inspire the same cue-the-menacing-cello-music terror that killer sharks off America's beaches might, but Pelagia noctiluca has vacationers along France's Cote D'Azur wondering whether it's really safe to go back in the water. And the discomforting answer is, Probably not — unless you happen to be a big fan of jellyfish stings.

Beaches from Marseille to Monaco have been plagued this summer by millions of the gelatinous invaders, whose burning stings have sent scores of holiday-makers fleeing the surf with yelps of pain since large numbers of jellyfish were first sighted along France's coast in June. And those menacing the shorelines are simply the outriders of giant shoals that marine biologists have identified hovering between Corsica and France's southern shores. Sections of that invertebrate mother ship are blown to land by unpredictable shifting winds that can turn coastal water into jellyfish marshes overnight — and then leave the same area virtually stinger-free the following day. A large part of the current jellyfish scare is that swimmers rarely know whether the water into which they're wading is benign Mediterranean surf or a dense minefield of tentacles.

The anxiety of the vacationers is forcing some tourism-dependent cities to take defensive measures. Several municipalities have prohibited swimming when the glob-to-human ratio gets too high. Such bans risk provoking the wrath of sweaty vacationers, but the alternative can be grim: on July 15 alone, rescue crews were called to the beaches of suburban Nice nearly 500 times to treat people for jellyfish stings.

Though jellyfish stings don't match shark attacks as a threat to human life — fatalities are usually linked to a few highly toxic species or (more frequently) shock and drowning resulting from multiple stings to people who swim into dense shoals — some French towns battling la meduse have adapted defensive methods from shark-plagued resorts elsewhere in the world. Cannes, for example, has invested nearly $50,000 in floaters and netting to create jellyfish-free zones the size of Olympic swimming pools at two of its most popular beaches. Similar systems have been deployed in Monaco and along certain sections of Marseille's coast. Though nets boast near perfect records in protecting bathers from stings, they do nothing to counter the larger jellyfish onslaught. Last year, Cannes shoveled over 11 million tons of the gooey creatures off its beaches — just a tiny fraction of a population that floats away to sting another day.

The bad news, according to experts, is that there's more of that gummy pain on the way. Overfishing and other destructive human activity have prompted the prolific multiplication of jellyfish by decimating their natural predators: tuna, sharks and turtles. That, and the fact that global warming has raised the water temperature of the Mediterranean by a degree, have produced an explosion of the jellyfish population and a prolonged presence of the creatures in waters where humans like to flounder. Traditionally, scientists say, jellyfish turn up along France's coastline every 10 to 12 years, for a period of four to five years. This is the eighth consecutive year that ever larger populations of jellyfish have camped out off the south of France — a trend experts say is unlikely to reverse itself since it reflects a domination of jellyfish over rivals in the food chain. Similar evolution has been noted in recent years off Spain, Italy and Greece.

Some Europeans have simply factored Pelagia noctiluca into their beach experience. Full-body Lycra suits designed to shield the skin from UV sun rays have become hot commodities this summer, according to Nice scuba-shop owner Stéphane Pinier, ever since people discovered that the garments also block jellyfish tentacles. Of course, choosing that method of avoiding the sting can itself be painful: the ungainly getup costs nearly $110.

But for those unwilling to compromise by adopting the soggy Jack LaLanne look or swimming in the safety of a net-protected "pool," doctors have some advice for coping with the sting. Rinse the lesion with cool seawater, they say, and once dry, apply a medicated cream to lessen the pain. Physicians warn against common but counter-productive remedies such as dousing the sting with drinking water, rubbing it with sand, trying to suck the venom from it and — especially — urinating on it. These "therapies," doctors say, are all certain to aggravate the sting's burning sensation, and the last one ... well, it's not only useless and disgusting, it adds insult to jellyfish injury.