Malta maladies – the jellyfish
When you’re sold a holiday in Malta, you’re sold azure waters and sun-drenched beaches… which is pretty much what you get. The waters are some of the clearest and most inviting in the whole of the Med and the beaches, while not very big and not always sandy, are nearly always sun-drenched. What they don’t tell you, is that you had better bring your vinegar with you, especially if you’re visiting at the start or end of the summer season. Yep, you’re going to get some jelly to go with that ice-cream!
An unwelcomed visitor to Malta
Recent years have seen an increase in the general jellyfish population reportedly due to overfishing and climate change; there are less natural predators such as dolphin, tuna and turtles and the warmer waters are increasing the rate of jellyfish reproduction. Team this with the currents and strong onshore wind, characteristic of Malta’s weather, and it’s not uncommon to see large swarms of jellyfish collecting in bays and beaches around the island. From experience, the largest numbers of jellyfish appear to visit Malta as the weather heats up around April and again when it starts to cool down around September.
Spotting a Malta jellyfish
The type of jellyfish that most commonly frequents Malta is the ‘Pelagia noctiluca’, otherwise known as the ‘Mauve Stinger’. This breed of jellyfish is often found in warm waters across the globe and is prolific in the Mediterranean. They aren’t deadly but their stings do pack a punch. Key features of the mauve stinger are:
1. Small and perfectly formed with a globe-shaped ‘bell’ about the size of a CD.
2. Pink, mauve or light brown in colour, often with a mottling in the same colour on the bell.
3. Seemingly short stubby pink tentacles just below the bell that disguise long thread-like tentacles that can trail for meters unseen behind the jellyfish.
4. The bell is phosphorescent which means it glows at night if it is disturbed (hence the ‘noctiluca’ part of the name).
When visiting Malta, these little critters can be seen grouping on the surface in the afore-mentioned swarm (or bloom), washed up on the beaches or lingering in a stealth-like fashion about a meter below the surface of the water. They’re harder to spot when they float solo and in many cases you’ll be stung without even seeing what got you.
Preventing a sting
Reaching the water’s edge, having hot-footed it across the burning sand, only to find your refreshing treat contaminated with jellyfish is highly disappointing. However, you mustn’t let it put you off swimming in Malta. It is possible to avoid getting stung by doing the following:
1. Be aware of peak jellyfish season and avoid taking your beach holiday at these times if it will ruin it for you.
2. Look before you leap: have a good scout around before running or jumping into the sea.
3. Swim in the countless areas that are protected by jellyfish nets. The Maltese put nets around water sports clubs, hotel bathing areas and popular beaches so there is always somewhere to find where you can swim in peace.
4. Get with nature: in many cases if there are a swarm of jellyfish collecting somewhere in the south of the island, the north may well be clear. It is possible to track where the currents have taken the jellyfish and avoid those areas.
5. Wear protective clothing: stinger suits may be a good idea for kids but if you don’t want to go that far, the most protective general use clothing is that which has a tight weave or a smooth or shiny surface i.e. Lycra. This means that the tentacles can’t penetrate or adhere to the material.
6. Don’t pick up or prod dead jellyfish. The tentacles may still contain toxins that can be released with disturbance even though the jellyfish is dried up.
7. Take a snorkel and mask with you. Having a ‘spotter’ in your group helps you avoid running into random jellyfish in seemingly clear waters.
Treating a jellyfish sting
If you are unlucky enough to get stung, and you wouldn’t be alone, the first thing to do is not panic. While it will feel like an electric shock and subsequent burning feeling, the stings from mauve stingers will not kill you. Furthermore, and contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to run around trying to find someone to wee on you! Get yourself back to shore and go to one of the restaurants or beach bars who are generally well equipped to deal with such things. If you don’t have access to anyone who can help, you are recommended to do the following (indeed most beaches in Malta have a sign at the entrance telling you what to do if you get stung):
1. Recognise the symptoms. The pain will be quite intense with a burning and itching sensation and you will be likely to develop raised welts or a rash. You may still have barbs left in your skin from the tentacles. If you experience trouble breathing you should seek medical help immediately as the toxins from the protein-based venom can lead to anaphylactic shock in sensitive subjects.
2. Don’t run fresh water over the sting as this will only serve to release further toxins. Soak or rinse the area in sea water.
3. Remove any remaining tentacles with a credit card or pair of tweezers. Make sure you don’t touch them as you could end up getting a secondary sting.
4. Don’t rub or scratch the area as you’ll aggravate and spread the toxins.
5. Alcohol or vinegar can help neutralise the toxins and reduce the level of pain experienced.
6. Leave any scars alone to heal, they should clear up within a couple of weeks.
Safe holiday in Malta
Dramatic as it all may sound, the worst part about jellyfish is the thought that you are going to get stung; it’s not generally that bad when it happens. It certainly shouldn’t put you off choosing Malta as a holiday destination and enjoying the crystal clear waters surrounding the island which, for most of the year, are jellyfish free. Awareness is definitely the key to combating this little Malta menace.