YORK BEACH, Maine — Nine-year-old Kaliah Ritz was in the ocean off of Long Sands Beach one day last week, boogie boarding with her dad and her cousin “when I felt something squishy between my legs. Then my legs went numb.
“We saw a jellyfish in the water before I got stung,” she said, “but it was just a big blob. We thought it was dead.”
Fortunately, her dad was right with her, said mom Denise Raucci. “All of a sudden she just started screaming crying. Her legs started stinging,” she said. “It drew quite a lot of attention on the beach, obviously. We’ve gone to Long Sands for years, and nobody has ever been stung before.”
That doesn’t mean it won’t happen in the waters off of York, said Jeff Patten, the head lifeguard for York Parks and Recreation Department.
“We deal with jellyfish quite regularly,” said Patten, although there has been an uptick the last few summers. “People will say, ‘Oh there’s a jellyfish on the beach.’ We find them a couple of times a week on Long Sands, but it happens at Harbor Beach and Short Sands, as well. We could go a week without seeing one, and then in one day, we’ll see four or five of them.”
Jellyfish typically stay out in the ocean, congregating in large “blooms,” and individually float in to shore after they’ve died, said Patten. So it’s likely the jellyfish that stung Kaliah Ritz was, as she thought, dead as well. But even then, Patten said, “their tentacles will have venom in them.”
Nick Record, a senior research scientist at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, has made it his business to gather as much information as possible about the jellyfish invasions in the Gulf of Maine. Although few humans may come in contact with them on the beach, “we started seeing these big aggregations of jellyfish in 2014.”
“They tend to show up all at once. Their life cycle is conducive to really fast reproduction. Then they can go away for like 10 years and you hardly see any,” he said.
Record said there are typically three types seen along the Maine coast: moon, white cross and lion’s mane, most typically seen along the southern Maine coast. It was a lion’s mane that probably stung Kaliah because other two varieties don’t hurt humans. It is by far the largest in size, with a brown “mane” around the edge, about a foot or more in circumference, with stingers floating below the surface that can cause real discomfort.
Scientists are tracking jellyfish so that they can learn more about their behavior, said Record. He said there are a number of reasons why blooms appear. They are, for instance, very prevalent in New York and New Jersey, which has a highly developed coastline. During the early stage of development, polyps attach themselves to hard surfaces such as docks and boats, surfaces that are hard to clean because the polyps grow so quickly, he said.
Also, warm waters are “advantageous” to jellyfish, he said. The warmer the water, “the more jellyfish-dominated ecosystems in the ocean.” Does climate change contribute to jellyfish blooms? Likely. “This idea that the jellyfish is increasing globally is something we’re trying to figure out. There hasn’t been good funding, because they come and go so sporadically. But they’re getting more attention now.”
Overfishing also plays a part, said Record. Jellyfish have the same prey as fish, “so if we remove fish, we’re removing a competitor.”
“None of this is to say that we know what is going on in the Gulf of Maine. Yes, there’s warming. Yes, there’s more development, but my hunch is that’s not the reason. And fishing, that’s an open question, too. Have we removed the competitors? We don’t know if there’s more of them or if conditions are bringing them more to shore.”
Despite the lack of scientific funding, Record has been working on his own to track the types and prevalence of jellyfish in Maine. He relies heavily on citizen reporting, as he works to aggregate his documentation. He has a website, https://eco.bigelow.org where people are asked to be citizen scientists, noting the date, time, type if known, along with a photo – information he adds to his growing database. People are also welcomed to email him at email@example.com.
“I’ve gotten hundreds of reports that way. We’re starting to get a picture of where the aggregates come from and where the polyp beds may be, as well,” he said.
Meanwhile, back at Long Sands Beach, the ocean has been remarkably warm this summer, said Patten, which could be a contributing factor. On Friday, for instance, it was 66 degrees and Patten said there have been some 70 degree days as well.
He said most jellyfish wash up dead on the beach and are not in the water, so people are encouraged to look at where they’re walking. Every morning the lifeguards survey their section of beach and remove any jellyfish, then they do document the finds and send them on to Bigelow.
Still, he said, there are enough of them these days that lifeguards always keep a syringe of apple cider vinegar with them at all times – the one antidote to a sting. Fortunately for Kaliah, said her mother, the family knew the signs and immediately treated the area with vinegar.
Raucci said the next day, it was itchy and “still quite irritated. The pain was better but not gone.” But the following day “there were just remnants of irritation.”
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