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Dr Somchai briefs a governor's media conference on Monday

Phuket Jellyfish Alert: Expert Guide to 'Boxies'

Monday, November 3, 2008
Phuketwan could not substantiate reports that box jellyfish were seen by divers off Phi Phi on Tuesday.


TO FIND some answers quickly to the key issues associated with the discovery of box jellyfish on Phuket, Phuketwan fired off some questions to Dr Lisa-ann Gershwin, Senior Advisor, Australian Marine Stinger Advisory Services.

Dr Gershwin, described by one person with an interest in box jellyfish as ''the best taxonomist in the world,'' is working with Dr Somchai Bussarawit and the Phuket Marine Biology Centre to identify species and organise workshops in Thailand.

Here are our questions and Dr Gershwin's answers:

Do jellyfish float with the tide, or can they propel themselves in the direction they chose to go?

Boxies are quite independent of the currents, although they do tend to ''prefer'' an incoming tide. Probably has to do with food availability, but we just don't know. Boxies can swim at four knots, sustained. These are Formula One animals! They also have well developed eyes with lenses, retinas and corneas, just like our eyes, and they can form images and respond to colour. They respond very accurately to objects in their way, different shapes and shadows, etc, so they are quite responsive and well capable of directing their movements. They will avoid people if they can, but the ''if they can'' is the problem. Obviously, people don't always stand still, and even if they do, the jellyfish have no controlled movement over their tentacles, so the jellyfish itself might careen around and miss you, but the tentacles may cut the corner, and then tragedy occurs. I have seen them manoeuvre around me numerous times, but the tentacles almost always brush my legs (with protective clothing, obviously!). It's not their fault, they are doing the best they can to avoid us. And to think, all this without a brain! Simply marvellous!

Is the box jellyfish likely to widen its territorial scope once the ones that are now in the single bay mature?

My guess is that the lack of finding them in these other bays is an artifact rather than ''not there''. They can be quite patchy in space and time, and sometimes it is just a matter of dumb luck. Let me give you an example of their patchiness: On 15 October 2003, I had received a report that someone had claimed to have seen a box jellyfish at a small bay in Townsville. The following morning, my research assistant and I went hunting there. From 7am to about 8.30, we saw absolutely nothing. We were literally leaving, when Marty said, ''Hey Gersh, here's one!'', so we stayed to photograph it and play awhile. After about 10 minutes, we noticed that we were absolutely surrounded with them - I mean cheek to jowel - perhaps five or more boxies per square metre of surface area, each about 10-12 cm wide - perfectly capable of killing in a couple of minutes, as far as the eye could see - literally thousands of them! Obviously, we had protective clothing on. After about an hour, not a single one could be found. Meanwhile, not a single one was recorded in lifeguard net drags just around the point, less than one kilometre away, during the time we were inundated.

An old adage comes to mind, ''the absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence.'' If they truly are not in the other bays, the ones from this bay are unlikely to 'spread out' to any large degree - you might get the odd one or two with a wanderlust or bad sense of direction, but they don't ''expand and colonise'' each season like some types of animals, for example, crocodiles. In that case, it is more likely that there is something about the other bays that they find unsuitable - and I would LOVE to know what that is.

How would they have come to Phuket?

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but they have always been there. Well, I suspect strongly that this is true, anyway. I do not personally have proof, I mean, I haven't lived and sampled there for hundreds of years, obviously. There hasn't been a lot of jellyfish collecting in Thailand through the years, so we really don't have a lot of reports of presence or absence to learn from. But boxies and Irukandjis both are quite prevalent throughout the tropics of the world, and Irukandjis extend from Cape Town to North Wales in the UK, and just about everyplace in between. So the most reasonable explanation is that they have been there all along, but they didn't have very good public relations officers to get the word out . . .

These same questions were asked some 60 years ago in the North Queensland area of Australia when the Chironex species of box jellyfish was formally found. Before that, it was always assumed that it was the Portuguese man of war that was wreaking the havoc. The Aborigines knew that they were there too, but they didn't really focus on the ''jellyfish'' as much as on the ''death'' or ''illness.'' In other words, they didn't report the presence of jellyfish, but they knew that evil spirits lurked in the water. I suspect in Thailand that there are historical anecdotes about the sea punishing people who had angered the gods, or something to that effect - very common explanation in instances where the agent of death is unknown.

As there are mangrove coves on the west coast, too, is there a real danger that the jellyfish in some varieties could establish themselves in places along the west coast, and become a threat to swimmers there?

It's not the mangroves per se, it's the type of habitat that mangroves usually grow in: nearby river, with patches of sandy beaches, with mangrove areas dotted here and there. Boxies will chase food around the mangroves if they have to, but they prefer sandy beach habitat. We think they breed in the rivers, but this has only been demonstrated once (1980) despite many many efforts to demonstrate this again. But regardless of whether they actually are or actually are not primarily breeding in the rivers, we know for fact that they like the type of habitat that is generally common at river-mouths, that is, sandy beaches interspersed with mangrove habitats. There is every reason to suspect that other areas with these types of habitats will be suitable boxie habitats.

We are trying not to be alarmist but to highlight the importance of a complete and adequate reaction to the current situation.

Your approach will be successful if it offers solutions. That's the difference: alarmism simply gets people spinning in circles, whereas a complete and adequate reaction actually makes improvements. It is not going to go away on its own, but it is manageable with common sense and some targeted effort. My dearest hope is that awareness and safety programs can be put into place, such as we have here in Australia, in order to save lives and reduce anxiety.

What about the question of habitat? So far, the jellyfish have only been found in one bay here, but there are many similar bays along the easy coast.

There is every ecological reason to expect that they will be found in all such bays throughout the region. In fact, if it can be conclusively demonstrated that they are not actually in these bays, it would be remarkable and worthy of scientific publication. In general, boxies like quiet, protected, sandy bays. They tend to be most abundant at the southern ends of such bays. However, with that said, they can also be found over rocky areas, weedy areas, and reefs, although these are not the preference.

And most importantly, is there any evidence in Australia that some varieties also like the kind of habitat provided by Phuket's western beaches, either in high season conditions or in low season?

Hmmm . . . can you please describe for me what the habitats of Phuket's western beaches are like? I can give you a more explicit answer if I know more about this. Please pardon my lack of local knowledge.

If someone can offer a thorough definition of Phuket's western coast, including the beaches and mangroves, we will pass on the information.

Essential Reading


Phuket Jellyfish Alert: No Cause For Panic
The Governor of Phuket hears a briefing on the Phuket box jellyfish alert and suggests continuing research, alerting people to the dangers and the treatment of stings, and avoiding panic
Phuket Box Jellyfish:'No Cause For Panic'

Phuket Jellyfish Alert: Governor To Decide
Box Jellyfish continue to be taken from waters close to Phuket City, with distribution of the vinegar that can treat stings about to begin. The governor is to meet a leading marine centre researcher on Monday.
Phuket Jellyfish Alert: Governor To Decide

Phuket Box Jellyfish: Biologist Sounds Alert
Phuket's Marine Biological Centre has issued an alert over the presence of box jellyfish in waters off Krabi and Phuket. Scientists are continuing to try to define more clearly the dangers, without unnecessary alarm.
Phuket Box Jellyfish: Biologist Sounds Alert

Box Jellyfish Found Off Phuket: Death in Krabi
The death of a tourist off Krabi and the discovery of a non-fatal form of box jellyfish off Phuket bring a call for help - and a claim that many more deaths go unrecorded.
Box Jellyfish Found Off Phuket: Death in Krabi

Photo Albums


Phuket Jellyfish Alert: The Biggest Test Yet?
'Sun, surf, sand ... but deadly jellyfish cast shadow on Phuket. An infestation of sea creatures sparks fears for the future of tourism.' Hong Kong readers learn about Phuket's biological crisis.
Phuket Jellyfish Alert: The Biggest Test Yet?

Phuket Box Jellyfish: Are We In Danger?
Virtually every day now, numbers of box jellyfish are being found at a spot not far from Phuket City as marine biologists puzzle over their unexpected presence. Should we be alarmed?
Phuket Box Jellyfish: Are We In Danger?

Comments

Comments have been disabled for this article.

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I first saw these translucent fleshy jellyfish on Naithon beach a few years ago, although smaller. The ones at Kamala beach over the last weekend were huge. Tourists were helping to 'rake' them out of the water - there were lots!

Posted by h2obabe on January 13, 2009 09:43

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This text deserves an all time classic! Dear Editor, you should make it more easy available, the infos surrounding the jellies are timeless and very valuable. Also, do not let the infos in the comments go down the internet graveyard.

So please do a new category, call it All Time Classic or On Our Watchlist or else and put inside some categories to easy find this stuff. Please.

Posted by Lena on October 20, 2009 16:33


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