You Never Know

When my better half, Colleen, and I planned our cruise to the Caribbean, writing an article for DAN’s Alert Diver was the furthest thing from my mind. Our only intentions were to enjoy some much-needed R&R and to leave the world behind.

But as is often the case in life, I was reminded that you never know what a day will hold or what will be required of you to make it through. When I boarded the cruise ship, I never thought I’d need my DAN® training, but need it I did.

This trip was a little different for me from the start. An injury prevented me from diving, so you can imagine how DAN might not have been at the forefront of my thoughts. I was reminded of the role DAN plays in divers’ lives as I watched my fellow travelers plan dives around age considerations and the altitudes of hike-and-bike excursions, but as I didn’t plan to dive, it was interesting only from an observational perspective. I had no intention of doing anything more strenuous than simple snorkeling, yet two separate events reminded me how quickly “simple” turns to “complex” where the water is concerned.

Pool Party Poopers

Picture this: You’re on a cruise ship and in a commercial-perfect, heated pool near the spa area. Cascading water massages your shoulders. Bathtub-like conditions create the perfect atmosphere to relax and escape life’s worries. It’s pretty much the last place you’d expect to have a hazardous marine life encounter, but we did.

The ship’s pool was filled with seawater. Although the ship had a complex filtration system, it remained (remotely) possible for the intake system to suck in and break apart jellyfish when filling the pool. The majority of the fish would be caught in the filters, but minute particles could pass through the filtration system. Unfired stinging cells can retain their toxicity and still trigger upon contact, unleashing harpoonlike barbs into unsuspecting bathers.

This scenario seemed plausible when several individuals on our ship had what looked to me like tiny jellyfish stings. At first, a variety of possibilities ranging from seabather’s eruption to bedbugs were considered. The ship’s crew thoroughly examined every cabin and ruled out bedbugs. The cause was finally pinpointed after other cruisers were observed exiting the pool with similar symptoms. Some of the islands are known to experience seasonal increases in the numbers of area jellyfish and Portuguese man-of-war (Physalia physalis), and we were there “in season.”

Happily, the situation was resolved in a day or two, though the dining areas experienced an unusually high number of requests for vinegar. As for me, it provided a good mental review on what to do when stung by a jellyfish. I didn’t expect it to be anything more.

Plan B Backfire

It was during our last port excursion that my own skills would be needed. Colleen and I planned to visit the local rainforest and spend some time in a waterfall. We grabbed our snorkel gear and began the trek, but the path to the waterfalls was treacherous from rain the previous day, the rocks slippery and unsafe, and the freshwater pool muddy and far from inviting.

Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish

So we went with Plan B. We hired a local driver and explored the island. He took us to an area known only to the locals, and as the road spiraled down it revealed a secluded beach you would expect to see on a calendar cover. It was paradise, and we were staying. Our driver agreed to return for us at a designated time.

We donned our snorkel gear and did an easy entry into the glasslike surf. There were no waves, no undertow, and the sandy bottom quickly dropped off to about 12 feet.

In search of marine life, Colleen swam perpendicular to shore for about 20 yards while I swam parallel to shore toward a rock formation. Finding nothing, she turned and swam in my direction, hoping to find some residents among the rocks.

She looked up to get her bearings, and in that split second our skills were called into the action. She didn’t see anything, but she yelled over to me that she had a tingling in her left arm from the elbow to her fingertips. She’d made contact with a Portuguese man-of-war.

Immediately our training kicked in. Neither of us panicked, and we made our way to shore. Before we exited the water, we rinsed the affected area with salt water and used a fin tip to scrape the area in an attempt to remove any unseen tentacles.

In my dive first aid kit I carry several containers of vinegar, which we applied liberally to the wound to neutralize any unfired nematocysts. The area was then scraped again and more vinegar applied. We rinsed off, packed our stuff, met the driver a few minutes later and started to make our way back to the cruise ship, where there was access to trained medical staff and resources if we needed them. Colleen suffered a very visible and severe line of blisters for the next 24 hours, as well as swelling, redness, pain and uncontrollable itching around the sting area. We kept the area clean and well coated in hydrocortisone cream; no further care was needed beyond our own actions, and the symptoms eventually subsided.

Planning Ahead

Both Colleen and I are DAN Instructors and take care to avoid hazardous marine life encounters. But sometimes you’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Being prepared makes a difference. We had our first aid kit and an emergency action plan. We were trained in hazardous marine life injuries and confident in our ability to handle such emergencies.

I have 28 years of emergency medical services (EMS) experience. I have seen my share of calls and have a binder full of certificates. But when it came to this incident, it was my DAN training I used. It’s why I keep DAN on speed dial, why I follow their safety protocol recommendations and keep my training current. I know firsthand what a difference it can make.

© Alert Diver — Q4 Fall 2011