The ocean is full of fascinating and wondrous creatures, hence our love for scuba diving. Along with their beauty, however, some of these aquatic organisms can cause harm to us as we explore their underwater home.
From jellyfish stings to sea urchin spines, it is likely that most of us will have an unpleasant encounter with aquatic life at some point. Knowing how to avoid these injuries, what creatures to be wary of and the right treatment to employ can help you to fully enjoy exploring our oceans.
Why do marine life injuries happen?
Marine life injuries are quite rare, considering how many creatures there are in the ocean that can cause harm to us. There are two main reasons that they occur. 1. We’ve provoked the animal, either by getting too close or harassing them. In these cases, the animal feels threatened and defends itself. 2. We were not paying enough attention to our surroundings and may have accidentally brushed against, touched or stepped on a hazardous animal.
“it is extremely rare to be attacked by an unprovoked marine animal…”
The important thing to understand is that it is extremely rare to be attacked by an unprovoked marine animal and that we are often the ones at fault for sustaining a marine life injury. The good news is that most of these are easily avoidable or treated.
If you are unfortunate enough to sustain a marine life injury, there are a few simple steps you can take to reduce the effects. In minor cases, delivering effective first aid provides pain relief and may be all that is needed. In serious cases, it can provide vital care, significantly improving the victim’s chance of survival whilst waiting for professional help to arrive. Here is our advice on how to avoid and treat common aquatic injuries and ensure that you can continue to safely enjoy the ocean.
How can you avoid marine life injuries?
Prevention is always better than cure. With a little care and common sense, it is easy to avoid marine life injuries. Protecting ourselves from harm also helps to preserve the marine environment. Here are our top tips to safely enjoy the oceans.
Be aware of your surroundings.
Look around when you are diving, swimming or walking in the water. Watch where you place your hands or feet. Always keep an eye out for any aquatic life that may be close so you can avoid accidental encounters.
There will often be warning signs near the beach if there is a specific threat to be aware of, for example, jellyfish. Alternatively having a quick browse online before you go can help keep you know what to look out for.
Shuffle, don’t step.
If you’re walking in shallow or sandy water, shuffling your feet can help you avoid stepping directly on an animal. The animal might also feel you coming and get out of the way.
Never poke, pet or pick up.
Aquatic animals will only attack when they feel threatened. Never engage in any activities that may provoke marine life. Keep a safe distance, we are guests in their home. Even shells or rocks could be home to a potentially harmful creature. Do not touch dead animals or even pieces of them, a lone tentacle can still contain venom.
Wearing appropriate exposure protection can help protect you against stings from creatures and scratches from coral. For example; a wetsuit, rash guard or wet shoes. However, still keep in mind that some creatures have spines that can pierce a shoe or wetsuit.
Practice good buoyancy control.
As a diver, good buoyancy is the easiest way to avoid aquatic life injuries. By staying off the bottom, you avoid accidental brushes of your limbs on coral and other animals.
So, how do you treat marine life injuries?
‘Don’t touch’ is a fundamental rule of observing marine life. We all know that keeping our hands to ourselves is the best defense against injuries underwater, as well as the best way to avoid damaging the marine environment. Sometimes, however, contact with harmful flora and fauna underwater is either unexpected or unavoidable.
A jellyfish sting is one of the most common marine life injuries. Reactions vary from person to person, including numbness, mild itching, severe pain or nothing at all. Jellyfish tentacles have microscopic barbs, which release toxins when they come into contact with your skin, even broken-off tentacles. This can happen when diving, swimming or even when walking along the shore. Broken tentacles or dead jellyfish washed up on the beach can still release toxins if stepped on.
How to treat a jellyfish sting:
- Remove the victim from the water. If the species is identified as a particularly dangerous one, e.g. Portuguese man of war or box jellyfish, (don’t worry we don’t have these in the Gilis), alert the emergency services.
- Wash with vinegar to neutralise the stinging cells. Do NOT rinse with fresh water or urine and avoid rubbing the affected area as this will trigger the stinging cells to release their venom and intensify the pain.
- Keep the victim still and avoid elevating the affected area to avoid toxins spreading through the body.
- Remove any visible tentacles using sterile tweezers, forceps or gloves and rinse area thoroughly with salt water to wash away any remaining nematocysts (stinging cells).
- Immerse the affected area in hot water or apply a heat pack (approximately 113’F/45’C) to reduce the pain. Some physicians may also recommend painkillers, anti-inflammatory or topical anesthetic may also be used.
Stings from a jellyfish can range from uncomfortable to life-threatening. The severity of the sting depends on the species of jellyfish, physiology of the victim, body part affected and size of the area affected. For example, a small child or someone allergic to the sting will have a stronger reaction.
Most jellyfish stings are minor and require only basic first aid as detailed above. However, some stings can be serious or even fatal. If you experience paralysis, difficulty breathing, chest pain or a large area was stung, seek professional medical help as soon as possible.
Anemone stings are also treated in the same way.
Stonefish, Scorpionfish and Lionfish
All three of these fish have several venomous spines on their fins. If your skin is punctured by one of these spines, you will usually experience immediate, intense localised pain and throbbing. Scorpionfish and stonefish are often hard to spot as they camouflage themselves into their surroundings. Envenomation often occurs accidentally, you might brush against a lionfish whilst swimming, step on a stonefish in the shallows or bump into a scorpionfish on the rock.
Immediate medical attention is required for stonefish and lionfish envenomation, and may be necessary for scorpionfish as well, depending on the severity of the victim’s reaction. The first aid treatment for all three injuries is the same.
How to treat a scorpionfish, lionfish and stonefish sting:
- Remove the victim from the water.
- Remove any spine fragments using sterile tweezers. Even broken-off spines can contain venom, so take care with removal and disposal.
- Immerse the wound in hot fresh water or use hot cloths for 30 – 90 minutes (45’C or as hot as the victim can tolerate). The heat helps to relive pain and reduce effects of the sting. The venom from these fish is protein based, which begins to break down and deactivate with heat.
- Always seek professional medical advice as further complications can occur slightly later.
Of the three, stonefish venom is the most potent and can be fatal. If you are stung by a stonefish, seek emergency medical care immediately. Hot water treatment can also help in the case of stonefish whilst waiting for medical care to arrive.
Sea urchins are covered in sharp, venom coated spines. If you step on or touch a sea urchin it is likely that these spines will break off and become lodged in your skin. Ouch. Although painful, this is rarely serious.
Follow the same treatment as for stonefish, scorpionfish, and lionfish.
Sea urchin spines are very fragile, so take care when removing them from the skin to ensure they do not break. According to the advice on https://www.jointhealthguide.org/joint-renew-review/, suggest that to break down any remaining spines, soak the wound in hot water with Epsom salts daily. If they have several spines, or if one punctures a joint, it is best to seek professional medical care. If the spines are not removed completely, the wound can become inflamed and lead to muscle and joint pain.
Stingray injuries mostly occur when swimmers or snorkelers are walking in shallow waters near the shore and accidentally step on a stingray. Individual reactions can vary but often include intense pain, nausea, and weakness.
Follow the same treatment as for stonefish, scorpionfish, and lionfish.
However, if the spine is embedded in the skin, it’s generally best to leave removal to medical professionals as the spines can be barbed. Similarly, if you have a severe reaction or are stung in the torso, you should seek help immediately.
Coral Grazes & Cuts
Coral cuts and abrasions can occur when diving, swimming or even just walking in the sea. Coral is often sharp, even light contact can break the skin. This can take time to heal and may become infected if not properly treated. This is because the living organisms that coat the coral can contaminate the wound.
How to treat a coral graze or cut:
- Stem any significant blood flow using direct pressure.
- Once bleeding has stopped, remove any remaining coral fragments by flushing the wound with fresh water.
- Use antibacterial soap or hydrogen peroxide mixed with water to disinfect the wound.
- Apply antibiotic cream and cover with a sterile, non-adhesive dressing. Clean and re-dress the wound regularly.
Although coral cuts don’t usually require medical attention, keep an eye out for any redness, itching, excess pus or swelling as this may be a sign of infection. Seek medical advice as you may require antibiotics to heal the wound.
Despite its name, fire coral is not actually a coral. It is an anemone-like organism that inflicts a painful burning or stinging sensation accompanied by a red rash. Symptoms of a fire coral sting can take up to 30 minutes to appear, so can be difficult to identify.
Treat fire coral sting in the same way as a jellyfish sting. In severe cases, or in the event of an allergic reaction, emergency medical care may be required.
Marine Animal Bites
Although extremely rare, it can happen and we want you to feel prepared. The severity of the bite mainly depends on the size of the animal that delivered the bite and where on your body. For example, a nip from a triggerfish vs a bite from a shark. Basic first aid for bites is the same as for most bleeding wounds, anyone with the first aid certification can do it.
How to treat a bite:
- Remove the victim from the water. If the bite is serious, call emergency services.
- Apply direct pressure to the wound. If bleeding continues, do not remove and bandages, add more on top.
- Elevate the wound above the heart if possible, reducing the blood flow to the affected area to minimise blood loss.
For minor wounds, wait until bleeding has stopped and rinse with fresh water. Apply antiseptic and dress the wound. Keep an eye out for infection. For more serious wounds, stitches may be required. Shock is also a concern for more serious bites so be prepared to administer oxygen if the patient is having trouble breathing.
Sea Snake Bites
As with pretty much all marine life injuries, sea snake bites occur when a diver accidentally disturbs a sea snake. Not all sea snakes have harmful venom, but some contain neurotoxins which can cause severe reactions or even death.
Common symptoms typically develop within 3 hours of being bitten. Early symptoms include blurred vision, joint pains, vomiting, increased salivation, thickening of the tongue and slurred speech. More severe symptoms may include paralysis, difficulty breathing, brown urine, double vision and lock jaw.
How to treat a Sea Snake bite:
- Monitor airway, breathing, and consciousness. Administer CPR if necessary and contact emergency medical services.
- Try to recognise the type of sea snake that has bitten the victim as this can aid in proper treatment or anti-venom if available.
- Wrap the affected site firmly with a wide bandage. Ensure it is not too tight and does not impair blood circulation. Keep the patient still and reassured until medical assistance arrives.
Do not try to suck the venom out of the bite. This can transfer the venom to your own mouth and lead to 2 patients to look after!
When should you seek emergency medical help?
Most marine life injuries are not life-threatening and often only require simple first aid as outlined above. However, if you experience any of the following symptoms, you should always seek emergency medical help immediately:
- Swelling around the sting and intense pain
- Difficulty in breathing
- Chest pain
- Difficulty remaining conscious
- Severe bleeding
- Nausea or vomiting
So dear ocean lovers, just be a little cautious and enjoy your time in and around the water.
Although marine life injuries are rare, you now know how to avoid and deal with any that you may encounter. However, it’s a good idea to play it safe. Don’t hesitate to seek medical help if a sting or bite seems serious or you are unsure of what stung you.
If you want to learn more about dealing with marine life injuries you can enrol in a PADI Rescue Course and Emergency First Response, where as well as basic first aid for injuries, you will also learn how to deal with emergency situations whilst diving. Oceans5 starts EFR and Rescue courses every day, send us a message if you’d like some more information.