Race to identify mysterious box jellyfish after painful stings on Sydney Beach

Swimmers have reported painful stings at a Sydney surf beach, raising concerns they could be from a mysterious box jellyfish first spotted in 2022.

Marine scientist Sarah-Jo Lobwein is part of a dedicated team working to understand more about the creature and determine if it is dangerous to humans.

She has collected images of both the jellyfish and the red welts they may have caused on Cronulla beachgoers. “You can see the lines from the prickles, the welts on the skin,” she said. “Different jellyfish can make you feel different, you feel like you’re on fire, it’s very different from a blowfly bite.”

Left - one of the mysterious box jellyfish in the waters of Cronulla.  That's right - a sample is caught and taken to the museum.

A mysterious box jellyfish has been collected from waters in Cronulla and is now being analyzed by scientists. Credit: Jason Gilmore/Brett Lobwein

What are the symptoms of suspected jellyfish stings?

Because everyone reacts to stings differently, it’s unclear whether they’re caused by the common jellyfish found in the area, or a separate, unidentified species thought to be a box jellyfish.

“I have been contacted by at least two people who believe they may have been bitten, but they may have been bitten by other species,” Ms Lobwein said. “If people think they’ve been bitten, we really need a photo.”

Encounters with the mysterious jellyfish were first captured on video by ocean swimmers in May last year. Then they apparently disappeared over the summer.

New sightings were again reported in April 2023, and a live animal was collected for the first time on Anzac Day, then a further three days later. They were shipped to the Australian Museum, where its marine experts are trying to determine if it’s a new species.

The video shows the mysterious box jellyfish up close

Are box jellyfish a problem in Sydney?

Australian box jellyfish prefer warm tropical waters and are found along the north coast of Australia, from Western Australia to the Northern Territory and Queensland. It is considered by US authorities to be the world’s most venomous marine life.

While jellyfish associated with the tropics have been sighted in southern waters, they have quickly become extinct in recent years. Researchers suspect that they traveled in the ballast of ships.

Surf lifeguards and other beachgoers at Cronulla.

Swimmers reported seeing mysterious box jellyfish in 2022. Then they disappeared. Source: Getty (file)

Due to climate change and changes in La Nina currents, there have been changes in the seascape in recent years. This includes thousands of strange-looking blue sea creatures washing up on Sydney’s beaches in a so-called “blue fleet”.

However, Ms Lobwein said it was possible it may have existed in Sydney’s waters but was never noticed. “We’re in a GoPro era now, everyone has a camera in the water,” she said.

What should I do if a friend gets stung by a box jellyfish?

The Australian Museum recommends the following steps for treating box jellyfish stings:

  • Call emergency services on triple 0 or 112.

  • Be ready to give CPR.

  • Keep the patient calm.

  • Don’t rub the area.

  • Flood the affected area with vinegar for at least 30 seconds.

  • Apply a pressure immobilization bandage.

Differences between Jimbles and the new jellyfish

Jimbles only have four tentacles and have painful but not usually life-threatening stings.

The mysterious creature’s body resembles that of other box jellyfish. It has multiple tentacles and features of both lethal and non-lethal species. A new species of box jellyfish was discovered in China this year.

Stinger suits are commonly worn in Australia’s tropics during the summer months as they reduce the risk of being stung. Anyone who sees a box jellyfish in Sydney is urged to avoid contact with them. Pictures taken from a safe distance can be sent to Ms Lobwein at [email protected].

“We still have so much to discover, so there’s so much out there in the ocean that we don’t know about,” she said.

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