It's my job to culture all the jellies at the aquarium, so I'm constantly cleaning and scrubbing and feeding and handling them. I think I've gotten used to being stung over the years, so I'm not always as careful as I used to be.
There are varying degrees of "stingy-ness," if you will. But one of the more painful of our local species is the lion's mane jellyfish. Near Vancouver, they're quite common. There are Altlantic versions as well.
In the wild, they can reach almost two metres in diameter, and their tentacles can be more than 37 metres long. Stretched out, the tentacles are really fine, like fishing line – almost invisible.
Once, diving off the shore of Vancouver, collecting new jellies, I swam through a tentacle. Instantly, my lip started burning.
The lip area is one of the only parts of your body that remains exposed when you're diving because you have a mask and hood on. A jellyfish sting starts off like a sharp, burning pain. It feels like you've been stung by a bee, but in a long line.
The pain faded, but I developed hives along the sting site about 24 hours later. They got really itchy, like a long line of mosquito bites.
Oddly, wild jellies sting more than cultured jellies do, and I think it has to do with what they're eating. Lion's mane jellyfish actually eat other jellies, so they have quite a strong sting.
Jellyfish have stinging cells that, under a microscope, actually look like harpoons. These harpoons basically eject and go into the skin and release whatever concoction of neurotoxins they have.
Every type of jellyfish has a different type of neurotoxin, and that's why some stings are quite a bit more severe. The box jellies you find in Australia can affect your breathing or your heart; obviously, those are really serious. But with the species we have around here, it would just be a strong burning sensation.
There's not much you can do about a sting. Usually, when we get back on the boat after a dive, we pick off any visible tentacles – you can also use a credit card to gently scrape them off – and try to wash the area with salt water. Not fresh water – it can trigger the stinging cells to sting more. Then, we recommend people just apply an anti-itch cream such as Benadryl or a hydrocortisone cream and treat it as you would any other sting. For some people, it can be more serious if they're experiencing other symptoms; just like some people may be more sensitive to bee stings, I don't see why some people might not react anaphylactically. But I've never heard of anybody dying of jellyfish stings here in Canada.
You hear about people urinating on the area where they've been stung. I wouldn't recommend that – just from a sanitary perspective. There is some evidence a mild acid, such as vinegar, can deactivate stinging cells. I've heard of people using other things, such as meat tenderizer. But the problem is whatever you're putting on your skin is going to affect the skin around the sting, so pouring on heavy acids or meat tenderizer could potentially make it a lot worse.
The worst is when we're out diving and a tentacle gets on your gloves and then you touch your face. Somehow it's always when your hands are full that your nose gets itchy or something, so then you go and rub it. It kind of feels like you've been punched in the nose.
Mackenzie Neale is a senior biologist at the Vancouver Aquarium.
As told to Wency Leung