Purple flags have been flying on Alabama's beaches all week because of an influx of Portuguese Man-O-War. The strong north wind from a late-week cold front has pushed all of them offshore, but officials are still urging caution. Man-O-War are commonly misidentified as jellyfish. They're actually not and carry a neurotoxin in their tentacles. Treating their stings also differs from jellyfish stings.
Those who frequent Gulf Shores' beaches probably know what a purple flag means, but that's not the case for many of our out-of-town visitors.
"I have no idea," said Courtiny Pilette from Michigan.
That's the common answer from tourists at our beaches. Purple flags indicate the presence of dangerous sea life and in the majority of cases here it means jellyfish or Portuguese Man-O-War and yes, there is a difference.
"A jellyfish is a single unit whereas a Portuguese Man-O-War is multiple units, meaning it's life forms that depend on each other for survival," explained Gulf Shores Fire Rescue Battalion Chief, Bo Smith.
Portuguese Man-O-War are easily identified by their gas-filled, radiant blue and purple sail. It floats on top of the water, moving where the wind takes it. The business end of the Man-O-War isn't what you see above the water, but what lies beneath. Tentacles that can stretch many feet in length carry thousands of stinging cells.
"Yeah I learned my lesson earlier this week. There was some slime…I was up on the pier and there was some slime on my line and I picked it off and apparently it was some jellyfish tentacles and the back of my fingers were burning," recalled Jim Molepske. "I rinsed them for about twenty minutes and things worked out."
So what is the proper way to treat a sting from a jellyfish versus a Man-O-War?
"With a jellyfish, you can actually take sand and saltwater, rub it in there and try to alleviate some of the pain. With Man-O-War, the treatment is to simply get to some hot water as quick as you can," Chief Smith explained. "You can rinse in some saltwater first. That's not going to hurt you, but what you don't want to do is use cooler, fresh water because that also releases the toxins quicker."
Another no-no is using vinegar. It's an old remedy, but it's now known to release those toxins quicker as well. Once you rinse with hot water, take some pain reliever and you should recover in a short amount of time. Some good advice for our viewers to the west where there have been reports that the west end of Dauphin Island has seen thousands of Man-O-War wash ashore over the last two days