Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Things that Sting and How to Avoid Them - Part 1 - Urchins and Hydroids

Disclaimer - I am NOT a doctor.  I am just a scuba instructor who has been around for a while and has seen (and been stung by) a lot of things.  This is not meant to replace professional medical advice or replace visiting your doctor or calling the professionals at Diver's Alert Network for advice.  If any of your symptoms are severe or are affecting your breathing or pulse, please get yourself to a hospital immediately!  



Image by Nick Hobgood via Wikipedia

SEA URCHINS - Often looked at by snorkelers and divers as an evil enemy, sea urchins are very underappreciated.  If you take a moment to observe them you will see and hear that they are magnificent creatures. 

Image by Jon Bondy via YouTube

When they move their spines around in the glistening sunlight it is like they are dancing.  Some urchins have beautiful coloration if you look closely (reds, purples, blues).  The crackling sound of the urchins scraping algae off the reef sounds like an underwater orchestra.  Without the urchins, the reef could get overrun with algae and the many creatures that depend on urchins for food could be in trouble. 

Image by LadyCopperhead via YouTube

Image by Sasquatch via Wikimedia

Image by Brocken Inaglory via Wikipedia

Among the creatures that eat urchins are birds, fish, crabs, lobster, octopus, and sea stars.  A snorkeler or diver who pays attention to small details will notice that sea urchins are often home to fish fry (newly hatched tiny baby fish) and little shrimp.  They use the urchin's spines for protection so they don't become an easy meal for another creature on the reef. 

Image by Ingvar-fed via Wikipedia

Every creature needs a way to protect itself, or it would never survive.  The sea urchin's way of protection is through it's spines.  Many species have long, sharp, sometimes venomous brittle spines that can puncture and break off in your skin.  Sea urchins are found in relatively shallow areas where there is algae growth because algae is an important food source for urchins.  Avoid shallow rocky areas, because there are likely sea urchins there!  

Image by Amy Kelley - Only stand in the sand

To avoid stepping on urchins, ONLY STAND IN THE SAND!  When snorkeling or diving, be aware of your surroundings and give plenty of distance between yourself and the urchins.

Image by Derek Keats via Flickr

I will admit that once upon a time I was pretty dumb and thought that if I picked up a very small long spine sea urchin very very carefully, I could avoid getting stung.  I was surprised to find that these creatures are incredibly talented at defending themselves.  The little urchin pointed its spines in the direction of my hand and actually dug one of its spines into my skin.  Ouch!  The long spine sea urchin is one of the urchins that is venomous, and even though I only got one little spine in my hand it was a deep, throbbing pain and I definitely learned my lesson!  

Image by Michael (a.k.a. moik) McCullough

Image by Michael (a.k.a. moik) McCullough via Flickr
Image by Graceie via Pixabay

If you accidentally get urchin spines in your skin you should remove any large spines that are sticking out with tweezers, then soak it in water as hot as you can tolerate without burning yourself for at least 30 minutes.  Trying to dig the spines out is not a good idea.  You will see that they just disintegrate into a million little pieces and digging will likely lead to infection.  Apply an antibiotic ointment and take acetaminophen or ibuprofen to relieve the pain.


Image by Bernard Picton via Wikipedia

HYDROIDS - Look like tiny underwater ferns or feathers, but are actually colonies of tiny animals related to jellyfish.  They are often overlooked because they are so small, but they are one of the most abundant creatures in the sea.  Hydroids can be found on almost anything that has been underwater for any length of time: sea weed, mooring lines, the underside of boats, docks, sea grass, rocks, the reef, conch name it!  Next time you are in the ocean, you are sure to see hydroids now that you know about them.  If disturbed, individual hydroids break off from the colony and float freely in the water.  Each one of these little hydroids can sting you.  Hydroids sting both as a way of protecting themselves and as a way of capturing prey.  If you have ever felt something sting you in the ocean but didn't see anything, there is a good chance that it was a hydroid.

Image by NPS Photo - Larry Basch via Wikipedia
How badly you will react to a hydroid sting depends on how sensitive your skin is.  People with tough skin might just feel the initial sting and a burning sensation, and then have no further reaction.  People with more sensitive skin could end up with a rash, welts, or blisters that could show up immediately or hours later.  I have very sensitive skin and tend to react severely to stinging things.  For me, it hurts pretty intensely, but usually for just a few seconds.  The worst of it is the itching that usually happens hours later and sometimes lasts over a week.  For some reason it's usually relatively tolerable for me during the day, but I find myself waking up in the middle of the night scratching uncontrollably and losing sleep. 

Image by Jonathan Wilkins via Wikipedia
Image by Amy Kelley - My whole body looked like this! :(

The worst was just over a year ago when the Caribbean had a huge influx of Sargasso sea weed.  It was so thick in one bay I was snorkeling in that I had to push my way through it to get back to the boat.  I was only wearing a bikini, no wetsuit or rash guard, so I got stung from head to toe.  At that time I didn't think about all of the hydroids that were likely growing all over the sea weed.  That night I broke out in a full body rash that was so itchy it practically drove me to the point of insanity.  It lasted a week, and was so bad I had to miss work.  I spent that week in a state of misery, doped up on benadryl and ibuprofen.  After experimenting with various topical anti-itch treatments I found that Bactine gave me the most relief because it desensitized my skin.         

Image by Rob Zwissler
The best way to avoid being stung by hydroids is to cover your skin by wearing a rash guard or wetsuit and avoiding contact with things that may have hydroids growing on them!  If you do get stung, avoid the temptation to rub your skin!  This will spread the stinging cells around and make it worse!  Instead, flush sea water over the sting to get rid of any remaining hydroids.  Next, get out of the water and rinse the sting with vinegar to neutralize the stinging cells.  Keep the area clean to avoid infection, and apply anti-itch medication. Consider taking Benadryl if the itching is too much to handle, and of course immediately seek professional medical help if the reaction affects your breathing or pulse.  

Diver's Alert Network, also known as "DAN," is the dive industry's number one dive safety resource.  Every diver should have their phone number, since they are the best resource for dive safety.  They have a 24 hour emergency hotline, as well as an information line for non-emergency medical questions.  I highly recommend becoming a DAN member, since they provide affordable and high quality dive insurance, travel insurance, a monthly magazine called "Alert Diver," and a wide variety of dive safety educational resources.  

DAN Non-emergency medical information line
Mon-Fri 8:30am to 5:00pm EST.

A big "Thank You!" to our local diver John F. for suggesting this blog topic!  I look forward to hearing everyone's ideas and suggestions for future blog topics.  Feel free to leave comments on this blog or on our Aqua Action Divers Facebook page.

Keep following the Aqua Action Blog to see "Things that Sting and How to Avoid Them - Part 2"

1 comment:

  1. Amy, so interesting. They are beautiful creatures!
    Love you! XOXO