The northeastern coastline of Australia in Queensland is stunning, the beautiful blue-green Coral Sea lapping gently onto curving white-sand beaches shaded by graceful palms bordering dense rainforests that climb the mountains as they rise above the sea. The water here at 18 degrees south of the equator is 83°F, and it absolutely begs you to plunge in….. well, not so fast.
Lois and I had encountered an Australian couple in Assisi (Italy) who had mentioned that on the beaches of northern Queensland, one does have to be careful to avoid “stingers.” Gradually we realized that these were neither bees, scorpions, nor scam artists, but rather jellyfish, and not just any jellyfish, but a special species called box jellyfish that inhabits these waters. I’d already received a pair of four-inch-long vertical jellyfish tattoos on my torso while snorkeling near Menjangan Island off of the northwest coast of Bali.
So, shortly after our arrival in Australia, we drove to the tourist information office to get advice about the location of the best and safest swimming beaches. The tourist office was near a beautiful promenade on the Cairns Harbor.
Outside of the office a man was giving advice to inquiring tourists. When we asked him about stingers, he said that sections of most public beaches have stinger nets that keep the jellyfish out. Then he looked us over carefully and said, “No worries…..the loikes of you should be ible to swim anywheah. Yer in foine shipe. Yeea, it moight be the most excruciatin’ paine yuv evah felt, and occayysionally some overwight, retired bloke gets nicked by one of the buggahs and drops dead of cahdiac arrest on the spot, but the two of you should be foine.”
Our confidence renewed, we drove to a beach about an hour north of Cairns in Port Douglas called Four Mile Beach, a long, gorgeous crescent of white-sand paradise.
The approach to the beach was posted with stinger warning signs showing a crude depiction of a jellyfish the size of a giant squid wrapping its tentacles around the thighs of a suitably horrified, unsuspecting bather. One helpful guidebook advises what to do if attacked by one of these creatures: “Do not attempt to remove the tentacles.” So I guess they leave the tentacles (which are up to 10 feet long) dangling from your sorry ass as a sort of souvenir of your visit. Underneath each stinger-warning sign at the beach was a bottle of vinegar. Apparently even severed stinger tentacles will continue injecting agonizing toxins into your nervous system unless you pickle the damn things. What to do if you can’t find a handy container of vinegar? Locals suggest that you have a buddy urinate on the affected area. The only drawback to this is that scientific studies show that urination has absolutely no beneficial effect on the victim of box jellyfish stings and may actually exacerbate the pain, in which case you suffer not only greater agony from the sting, but also the humiliation of having been pissed on.
Although Four Mile Beach is nearly as long as its name suggests, not a soul entered the water anywhere except for the 50 x 50 meter area bordered by the stinger net. I have to admit, I was disappointed. This is the land of Crocodile Dundee and Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin. You’d think that there must be at least someone out there with the gumption to do a little stinger wrasslin’….. especially after a few beers. By the way, I forgot to mention that box jellyfish are transparent and therefore pretty much invisible. OK, so maybe more than just a few beers.