When I was litle, I was obsessed with the sea. Living in a town in Essex meant I didn’t get regular access to it, so my sustenance came from a Dorling Kindersley book of the ocean. I loved it and would regularly pour over the pages, looking at the beautifully shot photographs of shells and creatures, contrasted against the bright white of the classic DK pages. There was one section I really loved, the part of the book that would get my heart thumping: the dangerous creatures section. I loved reading about these marine species. But there were no sharks on the pages, no huge whales. Instead it featured smaller creatures; weird and wonderful species I could only dream about. They excited and frightened me in equal bouts.
As I got older, the animals on the page became a bit of an unofficial bucket list for me and I am pleased to say that I have mostly ticked them off – I have dived with beautiful, striped lion fish, excellently camouflaged stone fish, the tiny but potentially devastating blue ringed octopus and even swum (by accident and in the dark!) with box jellyfish. But I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to see the incredible Portuguese Man O War, the weirdest of them all. I saw only a tiny picture, but the description drove my imagination wild – I imagined a huge creature, which mile-long, stinging tentacles, other species caught up amongst them as they were dragged along the oceans surface. I thought that one ouch of the tentacles would prove to be fatal.
Of course, in reality, this isn’t the case. The sting is very bad and could potentially be fatal if the person involved already has medical issues, but it is unlikely. But the strange creatures are still a source of fascination. Many people assume they are jellyfish, but in fact are a group of hydrozoa, floating on the oceans surface attached to their balloon-like sail, picking up food in the stinging tentacles. As they move due to the wind, strong winds can push them in land.
And this is exactly what has happened in Cornwall over the last few days. Storm Aileen has hit our shores, bringing with her gale force winds of up to 75mph. The wind has whipped up a load of Portuguese man o war and dragged them onto the sand. Over the last few days, hundreds of them creatures have been removed from the beaches on the North coast.
Today, after hearing a report of them appearing on the coastlines this morning, I hopped in the car and drove over to Perranporth near Newquay to finally see one for myself. When I reached the beach I could see men in bright orange coats inspecting the shore and thought I was too late, but as I reached the sea, I could see a small, purple mound sitting in the sand. As I reached it, my first reaction was that of surprise; it was so small. The tentacles were short and clogged with sand. I bent down to inspect it, it was beautiful and sad at the same time and I know 8 year old me would have been disappointed. Resisting the urge to reach out and touch it, I took a few photos before spotting another one further down the sand. The second one was pink and only a couple of inches long. As I was looking, other people came up to see the creatures too, before finally one of the men in bright coats came over, copped them both up with a spade and put them in a bucket to be thrown away.
I wandered off to take photographs of the beach, and even though I was pleased that I had finally seen one, the whole situation made me slightly sad. The creatures were still beautiful and absolutely fascinating, but I wish I could have seen one in the ocean and thriving as opposed to caked in sand and deserted on the shore, thrown into a bucket with only the rubbish tip as its destination.
The beach was empty as I left but a few hours later I heard a report that there were potentially more being spotted. The storm is set to calm down from now, so hopefully the rest of these guys will avoid the coast line and continue their journey across the oceans.
UPDATE: I was unfortunately wrong about numbers. Instead of there being less appearing on beaches, there have been many more washing up, with reports of hundreds being collected from beaches in one day. Unfortunately, it is thought that when these guys are beached, it is basically over for them, so they are not able to be released into the sea again.
There have also been reports that people are saying they will avoid Cornwall and that these creatures should be made ‘extinct’. It is important to remember that everything has its place in the world and that these guys actually provide food for the blue sea slug, the blanket octopus and the ocean sunfish. The fact they are here in such high numbers in Cornwall may also be very significant and may be able to tell us about the current state of the ocean.