An Irukandji Update: There’s Good News and There’s Bad News

It’s been more than four years since I wrote about the Irukandji and described it as The New Most Venomous Creature in the World. As we drift towards ‘stinger season’ here in Australia, which is October to May, I thought it would be a good time to update my info on this scary little critter.

And it certainly is little…

Irukandji-jellyfish-queensland-australiaYes, that tiny little thing in the test tube is one killer creature. Any of you who have read that post from four years back will know that in 2002 this tiny jellyfish claimed two lives. And in May 2013 when a couple of Aussies snorkelling in Western Australian, both strong swimmers, mysteriously drowned there was a suggestion that maybe they were stung by the Irukandji.

The coroner though found that the cause of death was drowning and said there was “...no evidence to confirm or deny the involvement of Irukandji.”

So, at the time of writing, there are still only two confirmed deaths attributed to the Irukandji here in Australia.

Good news and bad news

First, the bad news.

In my earlier post on the subject I quoted jellyfish expert Dr Jamie Seymour who said he would be “absolutely shocked if the Irukandji were not at the Sunshine Coast within 5 to 10 years.”

The reality has turned out to be worse than that.

Recently Dr Lisa-ann Gershwin, a jellyfish researcher, has said there is “absolutely, no question” that Morbakka fenneri, a new genus and species of Irukandji jellyfish, is present in large numbers on the Gold Coast and are also found from Port Douglas in Northern Queensland all the way down to Sydney in New South Wales.

This larger version of the Irukandji is potentially just as lethal as it’s relative.

Six people were stung by Irukandji in the space of just a couple of weeks off of Fraser Island in January 2013, all were hospitalised but everyone survived. Fraser Island is only 100 kilometres or so north of the Sunshine Coast.

Each year something like 60 to 100 people are hospitalised by Irukandji stings.

Now the good news

Irukandji fatalities remain extremely rare and although these jellyfish are highly toxic, it usually takes days before the effects are fully felt. Time enough for the victims to go to hospital and receive medical treatment.

Irukandji forecasts

The second piece of good news is that a study from CSIRO and University of Queensland researchers appears to have identified the conditions needed for these jellyfish get carried towards the shore. They believe that this knowledge will soon lead to an Irukandji forecast for swimmers that could be given out by SMS, radio, website or smartphone apps days in advance.

It all started when lifesavers noticed that stings seemed more common on calm days, which then led to findings that when the trade winds are blowing, or the south easterlies, the Irukandji could not make their way to where swimmers are likely to be.

So, just as you could choose to stay away from the beach if the weather forecast is bad, soon you should be able to choose to stay away if it’s likely to be a bad stinger day; CSIRO are already trialling an Irukandji stinger warning system.

So one day that app should be a reality, I’ve already reserved a space for it on my phone.

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