Portuguese man o’ war in Azorean waters

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During the lockdown, I went for a walk around Angra in the evening. And as I usually do, I went down to the city beach. Suddenly I stepped on something. Something blew out under my foot. I looked down: the dried up caravela portuguesa (EN Portuguese man o’ war). And next to it – another one. And another one. And another one.

Caravela portuguesa, or Portuguese man o’ war, is the terror of Azorean waters. The origin of its name is related to the sails of the old Portuguese ships. When it appears on the horizon, most people flee from the water. And who decides to take a swim often ends up with a souvenir for life. A souvenir in the form of a scar.

What is a Portuguese man o’ war?

The Portuguese man o’ war is a beautiful, blue and pink balloon floating on the surface of the ocean. It belongs to the Cnidaria family. It is one of the most dangerous creatures in the waters surrounding the Azores. Better to avoid it. To leave it far away.

What appears to be one organism is in fact a colony of specialized organisms living in symbiosis. One group is responsible for floating on the water (this is the sun-shimmering balloon we see most often), the second for catching the victim, the third for eating it, and the fourth for reproducing.

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Third degree burns

The colony responsible for catching the victim is also responsible for the permanent mementos on the human body. This colony consists of tentacles with numerous stings. They can be up to 30 meters long! Venom containing a strong neurotoxin is compared to the venom of a black widow (a spider that I don’t want to get to know closer either). It can kill, for example, fish that it feeds on, and even a small mammal.

In humans, the venom of the Portuguese man o’ war causes tremendous pain (in some people, lasting even a day and leading to fainting) and burns. Even third degree burns. Dizziness, nausea, respiratory problems, sometimes collapses, arrhythmia, burns of internal organs, tissue necrosis may appear. In addition, disorders in the nervous, musculoskeletal and digestive systems.

Even fatal cases have been reported. Fortunately, they are sporadic, so you probably won’t say goodbye to this world. But a natural tattoo in the form of a scar can stay with you for a long, long time. Which, of course, I do not wish you at all! After all, when someone decides to get a tattoo, it would be good if they chose the design themselves, wouldn’t it?

A dead Portuguese man o’ war is not that dead

Another warning: even if you see a dead Portuguese man o’ war (like me on the beach in Angra), be careful. Don’t walk by it barefoot, don’t try to turn it. And certainly not with your bare hands. The Portuguese man’s o’ war tentacles, even after it is dead, remain active. Be it on land or in the ocean. Better not to check their effects on yourself.

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What if I meet the Portuguese man o’ war too closely?

If your meeting with the Portuguese man o’ war is too close and you find yourself hurt in this relationship, go to the lifeguard right away (if you manage to walk…). On every official beach in the Azores, you are under the care of a lifeguards during the beach opening hours. They will help you. And then they’ll send to the hospital.

(Here is an anecdote. Two friends of mine told me independently a story about one of their visits to the beach. They’re looking: a lady is coming out of the water. Suddenly she’s screaming shortly, then falling over. They’re both running to help. The lady had a close encounter with a Portuguese man o’ war. Instead of on the beach, she spent the afternoon in the emergency room.)

If there is no lifeguard at the moment, you can try two methods. The first is to pour sea water on the wound, the second is to pour vinegar over the wound. Here, I want to warn you that there are conflicting opinions as to the results of these two solutions. Some recommend only sea water, others first sea water, then vinegar, others only vinegar. I’d really like to tell you what works 100%, but I’m not a scientist, and even scientific reports’ conclusions are different. And I will not do experiments on a living organism, forgive me. What I can tell you is that in this case, prevention is much better than cure.

(You absolutely mustn’t rub the wound, pee on it, pour fresh water, alcohol, toothpaste or ammonia on it! This will cause an even more intense release of toxins, more pain and more severe effects.)

It is said that The remains of the tentacles must be removed from the skin with something made of plastic (not metal!). Plastic tweezers or even a credit card are given as examples of tools. But if this is done unskillfully, the remaining venom can be activated. So it’s best to go to the emergency room. They will take care of you there as needed. A Portuguese man o’ war looks good only in the photo.

Where do they come from?

Every year in Terceira I am observing Portuguese men o’ war since spring. Last year and this year there are many more of them than before. The islanders also say that they don’t remember as many Portuguese men o’ war from their childhood as there are today. Where do they come from? It is believed to be a result of global warming. The temperature of the water in the ocean is rising, and the predators of the Portuguese men o’ war are dying. For example, there are fewer and fewer turtles that feed on Portuguese men o’ war.

Among the small number of sea creatures resistant to the venom of Portuguese men o’ war are the sea turtle, the blue dragon (a species of venomous sea slug), violet sea-snail (a species of predatory sea snail), and several fish. Climate change is changing the food chains of animals. And this has a direct impact on our lives. For example, we need to look around 10 times before getting into the water.

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It’s moving!

I recently went for a walk to another beach that I had discovered recently. I was walk slowly until something flashed under my feet. I looked: a Portuguese man o’ war. Second one. Third. Fifth. Tenth.

I had covered shoed and the Portuguese men o’ war were lying limply away from the waves and glistening beautifully in the evening sun, so I pulled out my mobile phone and started taking pictures of them. I thought: it will be great for the article! And suddenly… Suddenly I’m looking: it is moving!!! Do you know the 3xF reaction in case of danger? Fight, flight, freeze?

I froze.

I was terrified! The Portuguese man o’ war I was just taking a picture of started to move! I was convinced that „that thing” only floats on the water. That it has no „muscles” to allow it to move. I was surprised. It may not have muscles, but it can pick up one part of its body, turn it around and put it in another place. Even now, when I think about it, I have goosebumps. And since I’m writing it when it’s dark and gloomy, I feel a bit like in a horror movie.

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Don’t let yourself be led into this horror movie!

Or into into a Portuguese man o’ war. Seriously, it doesn’t make sense. There are more interesting experiences to be lived in the Azores. And more interesting meetings, such as with Andreia (I wrote about her in the article „Andreia and the best snacks in Biscoitos„). Or with me 😉

And so at the end – I didn’t write all this to scare you and discourage you from coming to the Azores. Not at all. I wrote it just to warn you. To show you what to watch out for. Because I want your experiences from the trip to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to be as beautiful as possible. And if you want a tattoo, let me know, I will recommend a local tattoo studio (checked by friends) to you. But spare yourself a meeting with a Portuguese man o’ war. Seriously.

Head up, glasses on the nose and see you on the beach without Portuguese men o’ war!

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