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Dr Lisa-ann Gershwin, Kim Moss and Andrew Jones at work

Jellyfish Jigsaw: Phuket's New Allies and Enemies

Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Important Seminar on Saturday

A NEW word is likely to be heard fairly frequently at the important public seminar on jellyfish this Saturday: Irukandjis.

Jellyfish expert Dr Lisa-ann Gershwin and her fellow visitors from Australia have already taken the time to look around Phuket, and Irukandjis is a word they are using quite a bit.

The news that the island resort managements will be keen to hear, though, is that the island's big, popular western beaches do not appear to be similar to the typical places where big box jellyfish are found.

This is not necessarily a clean bill of health. Those ''new'' Irukandjis? Well, maybe. It's too early to say.

Perhaps by Saturday and the public conference at Le Meridien Phuket, a few more pieces may have fallen into place on the jellyfish jigsaw of the Andaman region.

To put the science surrounding the critters in context, the beating that marine environments everywhere have been taking in modern times has led to jellyfish emerging as the planet's leading seaborne predator.

''We have a lot of evidence of jellyfish taking over around the world in disturbed ecosystems,'' Dr Gershwin said. ''That will probably happen more and more.''

As well as in tropical, sub-tropical and temperate Australian waters, jellyfish are on the increase just about everywhere.

More concerning in many ways than the dangerous and potentially deadly box jellyfish are the Irukandjis (pronounced Irra-Ganges).

These marine stingers are extremely small, about half the size of the apparently harmless one-centimetre jellyfish recently discovered in large numbers off Phuket's east coast.

Irukandjis are ''very bad in Hawaii, very bad in the Caribbean, all throughout the South Pacific, Tahiti, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Samoa,'' Dr Gershwin said. ''We get then as far north as North Wales in the United Kingdom, so Irukandjis are everywhere.''

Does that include Phuket? Well, perhaps. Dr Gershin certainly has one small specimen she brought with her, dead but interesting to look at.

Most people who swim off Phuket in the low season are familiar with the pin-pricks delivered by sea lice. Some people find them too frustrating, others simply swim with them.

Dr Gershwin says that elsewhere, Irukandjis tend to be found in similar waters to sea lice.

The difficulty with the Irukandjis is the sting is no more harsh than a lice-like pin-prick, yet it's a ''time bomb'' that can waylay the victim up to 40 minutes later.

So it was only with years of patient research (and the traditional knowledge of the Irukandji aboriginal tribe) that researchers were able to eventually relate cause and effect.

''Irukandji syndrome'' is now being diagnosed accurately where once a person's sudden illness was attributed to heart attack, stroke, or some other cause.

Two diagnosed deaths in northern Australia cost the tourist industry in the region millions of dollars in 2002. But effective warnings, protection and management have since lowered the hospitalised cases there from 38 four summers ago, to four last summer.

As Dr Gershwin says in a disturbing piece of mental imagery that sums up the issue, ''It's hard for people to wrap their heads around jellyfish.''

As for local waters, the big box jellyfish is now known to be present, and probably more likely to be a threat along the region's mangrove coasts.

Those ''new'' Irukandji . . . ''Irukandjis make you very, very sick and can kill,'' Dr Gershwin said.

''We have talked to people here in Thailand that have described stings that sound a lot like Irukandji Syndrome.

''But they weren't identified as Irukandji Syndrome because the people didn't have the knowledge.''

The syndrome constricts the throat passage in much the same way as a delayed allergic shock.

At this stage, Dr Gershwin said, much more research needs to take place, continuing and broadening the work of Dr Somchai Bussarawit, Chief of the Museum and Aquarium at the Phuket Marine Biology Centre.

''We have a saying in science,'' Dr Gershwin said. ''Absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence. That's very true when people's lives and livelihoods are at stake.''

Taking place in three days of conferences, followed by the free public seminar on Saturday, is a new level of awareness and involvement by interested parties at all levels of safety and health.

Residents and tourists should be safer than ever about swimming and water-borne activities around Phuket as a result.

Dr Gershwin, a marine stinger advisor and curator of natural science at Tasmania's Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, will be at the free seminar at Le Meridien Phuket from 10am Saturday.

Kim Moss, manager of Uninet Enclosure Systems, which are widely used in northern Australian waters, and Andrew Jones, father of a boy who was stung by a box jellyfish in Thailand, will also be speaking.

The seminar runs until noon. Bookings can be made through Jayne MacDougall or Prathaiyuth Chuayuan, telephone 076 370 100.

Jetstar and Le Meridien Phuket have helped to bring participants from Australia.

Phuketwan File on Jellyfish

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