Diana Nyad vs. Portuguese Man-of-War. Who Won?

How far can you swim?

Several laps at the pool? How about from Cuba to Miami?

Diana Nyad’s done it. Over two days in 1979, Nyad swam from Bimini to Florida, setting a distance record for non-stop swimming without a wetsuit that still stands today.

Now Diana’s 62 years old, and she’s trying to do it again.

In August, she attempted to swim the 103 mile trip from Havana to Miami. Despite strong currents, winds that pushed her miles off course and a shoulder injury that caused her pain, she pushed onward. Only when she experienced asthma symptoms which made it difficult for her to breathe did she give up – 29 hours after getting into the water.

Put it didn’t stop her for long. Nyad began a second attempt Saturday. She kept swimming, even though she had been stung by a Portuguese man-of-war. Unfortunately Nyad had to end her trek yesterday when medics warned her that  another sting could be deadly.

Nyad told the Associated Press:

“I trained this hard for this big dream I had for so many years, and to think these stupid little Portuguese man o’ war take it down. It’s a huge disappointment.”

The Portuguese Man-of-War

Despite its outward appearance, the Man o’ War is not a true jellyfish but a siphonophore.  This differs from jellyfish in that they are not actually a single creature, but a colony of many minute organisms called zooids. Each of these zooids is so highly-specialized that it is unable to survive on its own.

The Man-of-War floats on a gas-filled, blue to pink, translucent body called a pneumatophore. The body is 3 to 12 inches (9-30 cm) long. The crest (only a few inches tall) above the float acts like a sail, moving the animal across the seas.

Polyps support the tentacles and are located under the float; there are 3 types of polyps: dactylozooid (that find and catch prey with poisonous stingers called nematocysts), gonozooid (that reproduce), and gastrozooid (that digest the food, like a stomach). The coiled, stinging tentacles can be up to 165 feet (50 m) long!!!

Watch Out!

Detached tentacles and dead specimens (including those that wash up on shore) can sting just as painfully as the live creature in the water, and may remain potent for hours or even days after the death of the creature or the detachment of the tentacle.

Stings usually cause severe pain to humans, leaving whip-like, red welts on the skin that normally last 2 or 3 days after the initial sting.

And if that wasn’t enough…

Other symptoms caused by the sting of a man-of- war can include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Changes in pulse
  • Chest pain
  • Collapse
  • Headache
  • Muscle pain and muscle spasms
  • Numbness and weakness
  • Pain in the arms or legs
  • Raised red spot where stung
  • Runny nose and watery eyes
  • Swallowing difficulty
  • Sweating

First Aid

Seek medical attention as soon as possible.

If you know for certain that the person has been stung by a Portuguese man-of-war or sea nettle, wash with salt water (ocean water is okay, but make sure you do NOT get sand in the wound).

Protect affected area if possible.

Soak the area with a solution made of 1/2 vinegar and 1/2 water for about 30 minutes. This helps remove the tentacles. Rinse the area and then resoak with more 1/2 strength vinegar.

You may also remove tentacles by applying a paste made of flour or shaving cream and scraping the area with a dull instrument such as a credit card.

Apply a cream containing a painkiller, an antihistamine, or a corticosteroid.

Have any of you ever had a run-in with a Portuguese man-of-war? Tell us about it.

Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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