Gimme Shelter: Summer visitors

Ambrose Clancy
Ambrose Clancy

Jon Meyers, 8, thought it was probably the coolest thing he’d ever seen.

His sister, Maddy, 12, thought it was probably the most disgusting thing she’d ever seen, and pretended not to listen to Jon’s raves, treating her brother as if he was someone far beneath her in social status.

Carolyn, under the beach umbrella, just wanted her kids to stay away from it. “It’s not funny, Jon,” she said, looking up from her book, slipping her sunglasses down her nose.

Jon was alternately poking at it and trying to lift it with a piece of driftwood, the better to wave in his sister’s face. Maddy looked at him, reconsidering that he wasn’t just below her in status, but also in species.

Sadly for Jon, the jellyfish at the water line of Crescent Beach one morning last week was not cooperating.

Even in death the slimy, gooey mess just kept slipping off the boy’s stick.

Carolyn said something on the order of not making her get up and Jon stopped his scientific research.

The Meyers, guests of friends for a two-week break from Queens, have seen lots of jellyfish during their Island vacation. And anecdotal evidence suggests they’re not alone. Reports from almost every beach have jelly sightings.

Mary Lydon of Silver Beach didn’t encounter any of them swimming at a little unnamed beach near her house, but her companion notified her of several in the vicinity when she got out of the water.

Ms. Lydon’s reaction was simple, and like many people, she accompanied her appraisal with a slight shudder: “I don’t like them.”

Of all the creatures that disturb summer’s peace — mosquitoes, flies, ticks, louts in loud shorts — the jellyfish is the most quiet and dignified. They are, as young Jon was quick to observe, the coolest of critters, the most emotionless, unperturbed, could-care-less beings. They’re like the person who gets everyone’s attention by not giving a damn if you notice them or not.

Class is in session: Sit up straight and note down that the jellyfish is not a fish at all, but plankton. They’re also predators — the coolness meter just spiked — who live on other plankton. Like salesmen, they eat what they kill.

The silent, go-with-the-flow jellys are members of the cnidarian family, from the Greek, meaning “stinging nettle.”

The word jellyfish doesn’t give me the willies, as it does Ms. Lydon and others, but just typing “nettle” makes me shudder. I once walked out of a house in County Kerry on a perfect morning, barefoot, and strolled off the path to get a better look at the sun shining on the sea. The bottoms of my feet began to feel warm. In a minute it was like walking on broken glass. The people I was staying with — the savages — thought this was funny. I had walked barefoot into a patch of nettles.

Kim Manzo and her friends get stung by jellyfish “hundreds of times” every summer in Peconic Bay. “I’ve come to the point where I’m used to it,” said Ms. Manzo, a research scientist focusing on eel grass with the Cornell Cooperative Extension, working out of the Southold office.

“We’re constantly scuba diving,” she said, repeating that getting stung by jellyfish is not a big deal.

Anecdotal evidence is all we have about the invasion of jellyfish this summer, Ms. Manzo said. She didn’t think this summer had seen a sharp increase in numbers, but the floating, diaphanous masses have been on the rise for the past few years.

“Many people think it has to do with climate change,” Ms. Manzo said, adding that the rise in water temperatures helps jellyfish. “They first bloom in the spring, so the earlier that happens in the season, the more numerous they will be for the rest of the warmer months.”

There are two basic kinds of jellyfish gracefully parading in our waters, Ms. Manzo said, the stingers and the non-stingers. The most common putting a hurt on you are the big, ballooning, red boys you see, called “lion’s manes.” The other sea creature that wants to make you uncomfortable is known as a “sea nettle.” (I don’t want to talk about it.)

The most common, non-stinging jellyfish we see in our waters are “moon jellys,” the pancake-shaped ones that are completely clear. Similar to these are “comb jellys” or “pinafores,” Ms. Manzo said, which are barrel-shaped.

The moon jellys and pinafores are bioluminescent and can be seen at night, especially with moonlight. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to go night swimming, you’ve seen these bewitching creations, lighting your way and marking your wake with every magical stroke you take.

So you’re stung, what to do? Ms. Mano said there are many hysterical suggestions on the web (similar to online political blogs), alarmist claptrap about going to the emergency room if you’re stung. This should be done only if someone is showing some kind of respiratory irregularity, Ms. Manzo said.

“We take vinegar with us when we dive,” Ms. Manzo said, and that does the trick quickly and efficiently.

Any kind of acidic liquid works, since it rapidly breaks down the proteins in the sting.

And Ms. Manzo dispelled an urban myth about another method that is touted to take the pain away.

“No, you don’t have to pee on your friends,” she said.

Thank God for science.