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Box jellyfish in a bay near Phuket City. More are found regularly

Phuket Jellyfish Alert: The Biggest Test Yet?

Sunday, November 2, 2008
A version of this article first appeared in the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong on November 2.

Photo Album: Join A Jellyfish Hunt

THE WOMAN screams, runs out of the water onto Patong beach, rolls on the sand and dies in agony within three minutes. She has been stung by a box jellyfish.

The wounds from the tentacles are shocking. Within a month, tourists stop coming, resorts begin to close. The sea is alive with the creatures. Phuket's holiday heaven is at an end.

That's the nightmare scenario triggered by the discovery of the fearsome box jellyfish on the island's east coast and the death of a Swedish tourist off the neighboring destination of Krabi in April.

Nobody can say for sure that the scenario will happen. But nobody can say with certainty that it won't, either.

Two kinds of box jellyfish have suddenly appeared in the Andaman region, expanding their territory and turning up in numbers in places where they were previously unknown.

While the jellyfish seem to prefer shallow tidal foreshores near mangroves, marine biologists, health officials and the entire tourism industry have become deeply concerned about what might happen next.

Virtually every day that researchers check, immature box jellyfish are being found near an east coast mangrove forest at Nam Bor Bay, about four kilometres from the island's capital, Phuket City.

On Wednesday, three were caught in two small stake traps set by local fishermen. On Thursday, after heavy rain, there were 10 more in the traps.

Seven more slightly larger box jellyfish were found in stake traps on Friday.

Once the box jellyfish mature, where will they go? They appear to prefer shallow mangrove beaches.

I watched Thai children play yesterday in the water at a beach a few kilometres from where the jellyfish have been found.

Can Phuket Beat The Jellyfish Menace? Tell Us In The Comment Box Below

On Friday, Dr Somchai Bussarawit, the chief of the museum and aquarium at the Phuket Marine Biological Centre, set out with a sample box jellyfish to begin a lone-handed survey of fishermen along the east coast.

Scientists don't yet know much about the jellyfish, first discovered off Phuket in July, including the scale of the infestation.

But if two small traps net the jellyfish regularly, it's probable that thousands more are already in the water.

''This is all new to us,'' said Dr Somchai, who is now finding out all he can about a marine creature that was previously far less relevant.

It is only when a Thai reporter and I are in the waters of Nam Bor Bay, watching closely as a colleague of Dr Somchai takes box jellyfish from the traps, that we notice a difference in approach.

The two marine scientists are in long trousers and shoes, while the two reporters are bare-legged and bare-footed.

Essentially, that's one of the key issues for anyone paddling around in the sea off Phuket these days: Perhaps people should be told more about the box jellyfish, for their own safety.

Are the stings of the tennis-ball sized immature creatures dangerous? Dr Somchai smiles.

That's a matter for further research, and something none of us are keen to find out for ourselves.

After our paddle in the water late last month and the Phuketwan article that followed, the director of the marine biological centre, Vannakiat Thubthimsaeng, quickly alerted tourism groups, hospitals, local authorities and the island's new Governor to the presence of the jellyfish.

While Phuket's popular west coast beaches remain clear of the creatures for now and may stay that way, the extremely dangerous jellyfish have already proved themselves to be highly adaptable.

One of the two varieties has a sinlge tentacle, a single eye, and can propel itself by swimming through the water, Dr Somchai says.

Unsurprisingly, the discovery of the box jellyfish has also raised concern about the reporting of drownings and marine attacks.

As all three box jellyfish deaths widely reported in Thai waters since 2002 have been foreign tourists, speculation is rife that there have been many other deaths among Thais.

Phuket's marine biologists have sounded the alert and are now handing out donated bottles of vinegar, the only effective treatment for box jellyfish sting.

Yet other local officials have often proved keen not to alarm the tourists.

In August, Hongkong visitor Vinncci Wai Chi Chan was with her family on a weekend excursion to the small outlying island of Yao Noi when she was attacked by a stingray.

''The pain was unbearable,'' said the school teacher, whose husband John Tse is a university professor. ''I have never known such agony.''

Stingrays had made a return in numbers to the island's waters after an absence of several years. But the locals neglected to tell the tourists.

In Australia, tourists are usually warned about the presence of dangerous creatures and have not been discouraged from visiting places where the box jellyfish is a menace.

After the death of the Swedish girl in April, Dr Peter Fenner of James Cook University in Townsville told the Phuket marine biologists: ''Making the knowledge of this possible danger public will not detract in the long term from Thailand tourism, whereas ignoring it with subsequent deaths of tourists will.''

As with marine attacks, drownings are also believed to often go unreported.

Seeking to break the conspiracy of silence is Jayne MacDougall, newly appointed Director of Risk Management and Loss Prevention at Le Meridien Phuket Beach Resort.

She helped to organise Patong's first Australian-style surf lifesaving carnival in October and says: ''What's needed is a change in culture and education about how to swim and how to save people at pools and beaches.''

Stingray victim Ms Chan recovered quickly after painkillers and treatment at a local clinic. A nurse told her that stingray strikes usually only came once a year.

''I have suffered this year's attack, so everyone can now swim safely,'' she joked.

Box jellyfish victims may not be so fortunate. An Australian visitor became a victim of a box jellyfish at Koh Phangan in 2002.

''The long tentacles wrapped around his legs three or four times each,'' an official said. ''It would have been an excruciating death."

Dr Somchai is consulting Australian experts to find out more about the Phuket box jellyfish and organising the distribution of donated vinegar to resorts and dive companies.

At one stage last year, officials at Ocean Park in Hong Kong offered to teach Phuket marine biologists about box jellyfish but there was no funding.

''I visited them personally,'' Dr Somchai said.

On Monday, he is due to visit the provincial governor who will decide after the briefing what course of action needs to be taken.

Phuket's tourist industry has survived the 2004 tsunami, an air crash at the local airport that killed 90 people last year, a coup, a blockade of tourist flights and a state of emergency declaration, and several bird flu alarms.

The box jellyfish is another major test, this time from an unexpected source.

Update: Every tourism alert is different. Australians are now being warned not to go to Indonesia because the execution of three of the 2002 Bali bombers is expected at any time. Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith told media: ''We're taking all the precautions we can but we do urge Australians to reconsider their need to travel to Bali and Indonesia at this time.''

Essential Reading

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 Album

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 have been disabled for this article.


"A version of this article appeared in Hong Kong's Sunday Morning Post on 2 November" because you sent it to them under your name. You (personally) are trying to perpetuate the sensationalist aspect of this story by introducing headlines such as "HK readers learn about Phukets biological crisis". Tone it down please until we all learn a bit more.

Editor: Tone it down? I am not sure what you mean. Don't tell people elsewhere that Phuket has a problem? Lives are at stake. People have to be warned. Disclosure in this instance seems to me to be essential. As a journalist, I will let as many people know as possible. And, given the chance, I will let Phuket people know what the rest of the world is reading and thinking, too. That way, people will act with commonsense and speed.

Posted by stuart on November 3, 2008 08:23


Phuket media are destroying tourism with the jellyfish scare

Editor: You are entitled to your opinion. But the alternative is to ignore the jellyfish and hope they go away. Will you be content if people are seriously injured or lose their lives, as has been the case in other places? What would happen to the tourist industry then?

Posted by Richard on November 4, 2008 19:58


I think what Richard and I are saying is that conjectural reporting like as follows, is rather sensationalist and unbalanced. More information from experts is necessary before declaring Armageddon:
THE WOMAN screams, runs out of the water onto Patong beach, rolls on the sand and dies in agony within three minutes. She has been stung by a box jellyfish.

"The wounds from the tentacles are shocking. Within a month, tourists stop coming, resorts begin to close. The sea is alive with the creatures. Phuket's holiday heaven is at an end."

Editor: I suggest you read the whole story. (It's above these comments). The thirds paragraph makes it plain that the incident on Patong beach is a 'nightmare scenario.' The article is accurate, fair and balanced. It has drawn your attention, and the attention of people whose lives could be at risk, to the issue. To disguise the potential harm to tourists and the tourism industry would be reprehensible. Immediate action is required. Have you seen today's Nation Xpress? Look for the heading 'Killer on the Loose.' I'll let you decide which news source is accurate, fair and balanced.

Posted by stuart on November 5, 2008 09:05


The nightmare scenario described by the reporter is like that which happened to my family less than 12 months ago in Thailand and is also something that occurred on Koh Lanta in April to a completely devastated Swedish family who lost their beloved 10 year old daughter while on holiday and it is also something that happened to a woman who's fiance died within minutes on Koh Phangnan and 6 years later she still relives that horrible moment and grieves for the man who would have been her husband.

This situation is real. There are box jellyfish in the waters of Phuket and the rest of Thailand and they can kill within minutes; however, perspective is crucial and this scenario is rare, the risk is minimal, but it happened to us and three of my family were stung, my 5 year old near fatally. Three days earlier it happened to another family at the same beach - the resort owners knew but no-one said a thing, no warning at all.

Tourism in Queensland, Australia including the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns and the Whitsundays is thriving despite a box jellyfish problem known the world over. The reason is that the problem is properly managed thus reasurring visitors and minimizing risk. Death and injury numbers have dropped as a result, tourist numbers continue to increase.

Why? Awareness. Prevention. Treatment. It's the responsible thing to do and in the long run tourism in Phuket and the rest of Thailand will be better off.

If another death occurs and Thailand is seen to do nothing then that will destroy tourism in Phuket.

Phuketwan should be commended for actually obtaining the facts of the matter and persisting so that more information can be provided for readers to make up their own minds on the issue. As mentioned by the editor, the Nation Xpress heading and lead in is quite ridiculous.

Forewarned is fore-armed.

Posted by Andrew on November 5, 2008 14:52


What about the nets?. Are any stinger net (like in Australia) working there?


Editor: Yes, parts of Australia have nets . . . but does Phuket need nets? It's too early to say for sure. The salespeople will sell you nets though, if you want them. Maybe, if nets keep out the jetskis along with the jellies, a barrier is not such a bad idea. But the environment is better without them.

Posted by Bruno on November 18, 2008 21:25


I think the problem will raise, actually is a global problem, not only from Thailand or Australia. Because in this moment there isn't any real solution. The pollution is raising too and the natural predators of the jellyfish are decreasing. With this scene in front of our eyes the only thing that all can do is put something (nets or special swimsuits) between the problem and the bathers.


Posted by Bruno on November 19, 2008 01:42


lets hope they dont use the donated vinegar for the salad! TIT.....

Posted by jojo on November 30, 2008 07:19


Box Jellyfish live in pretty much all tropical waters, they have been in Thailand for a long time. It is recent publicity that has drawn attention to the jellyfish. Think of all the thousands of people who swim in Thai waters every day of every year and how few of those have had a problem with Box Jellyfish (we'll never know about the locals, just think about tourists) - not very many at all.
By causing alarm, no good is achieved. The best thing that can happen is that people are forewarned and forearmed. Other than that, education and training of tourist guides/operators will help to save lives in the event of a sting, which is badly needed, as there is little in the way of standards or regulation in pretty much any industry in Phuket.
I agree with Andrew. The Great Barrier Reef is one of Australia's premier tourist destinations and the Box Jellyfish has done little to diminish that fact. With proper management the Box Jellyfish will not harm Phuket or its water-tourism based industries if proper precautions are taken.
Until a few days ago, I had no idea there was a problem with jellyfish in Phuket other than a painful but innocuous sting. I am glad that there are people out there who are truthful and who are alerting people to be cautious.

Posted by Tina on January 6, 2009 23:04


Thanks for posting these articles. Awareness is the key, the number one tool for fighting this is to first spread the word. It's sad that there are not even simple signs to warn people of these dangers. Most visitors don't have a clue.

Posted by Phuket Hotels on April 6, 2009 17:19

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