Two deaths in 2015 illustrate Thailand's jellyfish dangers; needs caution not alarm

How to find the cheapest hotel rates on Thailand?
Easy – book the hotel directly – cut out all middlemen. We display all Thai beachfront hotels that GUARANTEE, in writing, to discount below the lowest online rates anywhere when guests book directly with the hotel.
See the resorts list on the left, then contact the hotel using the e-mail box on the hotel page. We put guests in direct contact with hotels, and take no commission.
We also sell DISCOUNT ROOM VOUCHERS, the cheapest rooms available on Thai beaches. These are limited & conditions apply. Just click TOP DEALS above. Contact Jade for advice anytime: jadebeachfront@gmail.com

……………………………………………….

.

Deadly box jellyfish are a problem in Thailand - but statistically not a major one

Deadly box jellyfish killed two people on Thai beaches in 2015; the latest being the death of a 20-year-old German woman on Lamai Beach, Koh Samui, in October. Just as alarming, however, are the 11 other, non-fatal attacks in and around Koh Samui in the same year. This sudden surge in stinging cases has officials and hoteliers in Samui and nearby Koh Phang in a mild panic; What is happening? Why are there suddenly so many of the dangerous, often deadly jellyfish in the waters here? Officials are placing bottles of vinegar on safety posts along the island’s beaches and encouraging hotels to invest in nets to keep the jellyfish away from swimming areas.
.
Koh Phangan, Samui's sister island just 10 kilometres to the north, and site of the world-famous Full Moon Party, has the sad distinction of having the most deaths by jellyfish in all of Thailand. That's four deaths in total, in 2002, 2002, 2014 and 2015. The two recent deaths included a young French boy (Aug 2014) and a Thai woman (July 2015).
.
With so many stinging attacks occurring around these two islands a pattern is appearing in Thailand’s box jellyfish troubles. In total, eight tourists have been killed by the (presumed) box jellyfish chironex fleckeri since records began in the 1990s, seven of them foreigners with just one Thai. Tellingly, all but one death occurred in the relatively shallow waters of the Gulf of Thailand. An 11-year-old Swedish girl who fell victim in Koh Lanta in 2008 is the only recorded death on Thailand’s Andaman Coast. Washed by deeper, clearer oceans, this Indian Ocean coastline is emerging as the safer side of the country.
.
Chironex fleckeri are known to prefer relatively shallow, calm waters where they are much more pro-active than other jellyfish species, many of which are simply swept along with the currents. These hunters of small fish have been observed patrolling back and forth along beaches, trailing their long tentacles along clearly navigated paths. Their rudimentary eyes even allow them to swim around obstacles. With bodies that grow to a square bell about 20 centimetres across each side, box jellies trail tentacles as long as three metres. But being translucent, they are near invisible to the human eye, and people can walk or swim right into them even in clear water. And if large numbers of a jelly’s murderous stinging cells wrap around a human torso, a quick death is the common result, often right there on the beach just minutes after emerging from the water. Those stung on the arms and legs often survive, but suffer hours of excruciating pain and deep welts that don’t heal for months.
.
As with the box jellyfish deaths, the great majority of Thailand’s non-fatal stingings also occurred in the Gulf, particularly around islands. This is becoming a serious concern for hoteliers on Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Mak, another island in the eastern Gulf with at least four serious stingings, but no fatalities. Koh Mak was the first island in Thailand where hotels began placing nets along beaches to block the entry of box jellyfish, a move that seems to have worked, with no new attacks reported in recent years.
.
But Thailand's nation-wide statistics are thin, and do not answer the questions surrounding the recent surge in stinging attacks. Were all of Koh Samui’s recent stinging cases caused by the deadly chironex species? Is the 2015 surge temporary, caused by conditions specific to that year? Or is this a sign of things to come; a dangerous shroud spreading over the island’s happy-go-lucky tourism industry?
.
Some people surmise that rising ocean temperatures are responsible for increasing numbers of jellyfish in oceans worldwide. Also, some scientists believe that as turtles - which consider jellyfish delicacies - are killed off my man, more of the dangerous jellies will survive to threaten humans.
..
The August 2014, jellyfish killing of a 5-year-old French boy on Koh Phangan broke a years' long 'safe period' during which tens of millions of foreign tourists swarmed to Thai beaches without fatal attack by jellyfish, sharks, sea snakes or other dangerous sea creatures. Several tourists drown on Thai beaches each year, while the dangers on land, mostly posed by homo sapiens, are something quite different. An occasional tourist gets murdered in Thailand, while many are killed each year in the inevitable road accidents. And while quite a few tourist deaths are attributed to drugs, Thailand remains a relatively safe country for the average visitor engaging in normal behaviour.
.

statistically, swimming on Thailand's beaches is rather safe

Many millions of visitors swim on Thailand's beaches each year, along with millions more Thais entering the sea almost daily. The eight fatalities recorded in Thailand over about twenty years are therefore, statistically, almost insignificant. Each year many more tourists die from drowning, drugs and motorcycle accidents, and there are surely many additional causes of death that out rank the miniscule danger from box jellyfish. Considering the number of times each tourist swims off a Thai beach during his/her vacation, the statistical chances of a fatal or near fatal encounter with a box jellyfish has to be one in many hundreds of millions.
.
Another indicator of the prevalence of deadly jellyfish in Thai waters is the fact that hardly any Thais, even those living by the beaches, are aware of the existence of such deadly creatures. Of course the manner in which Thais swim, almost fully clothed, helps protect them, but not fully. Thais also leave the part of the body most vulnerable to stings uncovered, the legs. Most box jellyfish stings take place in shallow water, close to shore. In the Philippines jellyfish matters are very different. Here a real awareness of the dangers of jellyfish exists among the fishing communities that make up a huge percentage of the population. If the accepted toll of 20 – 40 Filipinos killed by box jellyfish each year is realistic, that awareness is to be expected. See more about this, and wider the problem of box jellyfish in Southeast Asian waters in a separate page.
.

Thailand is leading the way in awareness and prevention – sort of

Thailand has made some strides towards educating local authorities and staff in beachfront hotels in recent years. A particular incident in December 2007 on Koh Mak, in the far southeast of the country initiated the first real change. The four-year old son of Australian journalist Andrew Jones was badly stung by a presumed chironex fleckeri, and started screaming horrifically from the shallow water. Luckily his father knew to rush for vinegar – the best-known treatment for box jellyfish stings. The fast-rising, ugly welts across the boy's legs were washed in vinegar, but still his breathing and heart ceased as he slid towards death. Happily, fate and good fortune intervened, and the child was resuscitated successfully, and survived.
.
This Australian journalist then engaged in a years' long campaign to convince the local authorities and hoteliers in Thailand's beach destinations to take the jellyfish problem seriously. The first aid poles now seen along the beaches of Koh Mak, Koh Kood and a few other places in Thailand are evidence of his positive impact. Phuket has since held a couple of conferences and meetings to discuss the box jellyfish problem, and spread awareness of the need for vinegar placement along the beaches. Scattered fist aid stations - colourful poles holding bottles of vinegar - have been established along some beaches in Phuket, and in different parts of the country.
.
On Koh Mak, where the Jones-led crusade began, several hotels now place anti-stinger nets long the beaches in front of the hotels each high season.
.
But this is Thailand, a country where some objectives that seem like must-do, good sense to the Western mind gradually fade, and are soon lost. In May 2014 I walked almost every beach on Koh Mak and Koh Kood with a beachfront hotel, taking care to watch for the first aid poles. They were there, all right, though the majority of them no longer contained vinegar. Perhaps it was due the fact that the high season had passed and most of the foreign tourists had left. But the hotels were still full – with Thai tourists – and they too were swimming and playing in the water, seemingly without fear or complaint. These local Thai visitors had little or no awareness of the jellyfish problem.
.

what other jellyfish species should tourists be aware of on Thai beaches?

Thai beaches are visited by a variety of jellyfish species - as are most beaches in the world. They generally come in seasons, or in limited migrations that are poorly understood by scientists. Most, happily, are virtually harmless, or cause only itchiness or minor stings. But their presence can cause alarm.
.
In 2017 jellyfish warnings were put out along Thailand’s Andaman coast by officials in both the National Parks and Department of Marine and Coastal Resources. The Nation newspaper warned of Poisonous jellyfish crowding Krabi, Phi Phi. These, the paper said, were large schools of Chrysaora jellyfish off beaches on nearby islands where relatively few people swim. This is a large, bulky species that is easy to spot, and they can be handled safely by the bell. While having some poison, they are not dangerous even if a swimmer were clumsy enough to crash into one.
.
This alarming jellyfish warning was also published by The Nation in June the same year, a month when there are few tourists on the beaches, and even fewer in the rough, monsoon seas:

Tourists should be careful when swimming at beaches in Trang and Krabi as venomous box jellyfish have been spotted there, the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources warned yesterday.

Officials had reported a jellyfish density of 12 specimens per 100 square metres, a shocking situation had these been the deadly chironex fleckeri species. Humans would not stand a chance in a soup so thick with the deadly guys whose many tentacles can trail two metres behind. But these jellyfish were identified as Chiropsoides buitendijki, a species that the authoritive book Venomous and Poinonous Marine Animals says has no reported deaths to its name.
.

Pink fire jellyfish were blamed in another warning issued in Krabi in 2018 by National Park Rangers, after several Chinese tourists were stung near Koh Hong, an island northwest of Krabi central. The rangers collected and cleared as many jellyfish as they could, and distributed vinegar to treat stings, which can be painful, but not dangerous. This species, Pelagia panopyra, also appears only occasionally, in swarms, and always during the monsoon season.
.

The well-known Portuguese-man-of-war jellyfish, known on beaches worldwide, are also occasionally washed up on Thailand’s Andaman shores by monsoon winds. But these, with their bright purple balloons floating on the surface, are easy to spot and avoid.
.

As Thai officials get to know their marine environment better, and as tourist safety becomes a bigger issue, we are seeing more reports about just about everything. That does not mean there are any more jellyfish than there were in the past, when swimming was statistically quite safe. But one thing is for certain, as tourist numbers soar in Thailand, there will be more run-ins with jellyfish, more accidents and other mishaps. And even those – which will be well reported via social media and other channels – will not necessarily indicate that Thailand's beaches are any more dangerous than in the past, or any more dangerous than those in other countries.
.

what danger to Phuket's millions of tourists from deadly box jellyfish?

Phuket - by far Thailand's biggest beach attraction - has not suffered any known recorded deaths by jellyfish. Luckily - perhaps even surprisingly. So there's a palpable sense of complacency about the dangers of jellyfish here. But the deadly chironex fleckeri are known to inhabit the area - particularly the calmer east coast of the island. It's noteworthy that Phuket has hosted a couple of meetings between officials, hoteliers and international jellyfish experts to assess the potential dangers of jellyfish attacks and educate the locals. Following one such meeting the local authorities boasted of having established first-aid poles with vinegar on all major Phuket beaches.
.
I have also walked the length of virtually all beaches on this island with camera in hand, the last of many times in March 2016. However, I failed to find all but two or three of the first aid stations over kilometres of beach – and those I did find had their vinegar bottles missing or empty. Where were the rest of the stations?
.
The sense of complacency is not too difficult to understand. Phuket now welcomes over 10 million tourists a year, and the majority of those, we can expect, enter the water at least once each day, sometime many more time than that. It's been going on, with smaller numbers, since the 1970s. That accounts for hundreds of millions of swimming sessions, all without serious incident. It appears that the only known jellyfish incident is of a Russian Scuba diver suffering a tiny sting to the face during a night dive, and he survived quite well.
.
Most local people on Phuket remain blissfully unaware of jellyfish fatalities or serious stinging incidents. Drownings? There are plenty of those each monsoon season, and they're topic of local discussion. Road accidents with tourists wiped out? They're regular, and many people have strong opinions on the problem. Jet-ski and jewellery rip-offs aimed at tourists? Again, they're on the minds of many locals who make a living from tourism. But jellyfish? without a known case in the local waters, they simply don't register as a real problem.
.

the most diabolical of all killer jellyfish lurks out THERE

This, the most diabolical, mystery killer in the oceans is waiting out there. A tiny jellyfish the size of a human thumb, translucent and almost impossible to see, this is so sneaky and deadly that many people may have been killed by it in the past with nobody knowing. If eventually proved more dangerous than chironex fleckeri, as some suspect it to be, this would surely be the deadliest killer of all on planet earth. Meet the freakish Irukandji syndrome.
.
But importantly, you don’t have to come to Thailand to meet the lethal Irukandji jellyfish – they’re found in all oceans of the world, and probably right on your home beach, occasionally; in small numbers.
.
The sting of this malevolent mini-killer starts out barely noticed by the swimmer, who probably doesn't even leave the water. But that little sting sends a cocktail of lethal toxins streaming through the body; still unnoticed. Then, often hours later, murderous mayhem can erupt internally, with heart failure or other organ raptures causing sudden collapse or death.
.
Doctors, it is believed, more often prescribe heart attack or organ failure as the cause of death in such cases, not jellyfish sting - for which there is little or no evidence - thus masking the real extent of human carnage caused by this on-so-tiny, mini-murderer.
.

why Thais in Phuket - and many other places - won't follow through on the box jellyfish problem

How to get Thai officials and hoteliers in destinations like Phuket - that have not yet suffered a death by jellyfish - to focus on the problem before it strikes? More accurately, we should call it a potential problem. And considering the odds - perhaps one in a hundred million in Phuket - it's a potential problem of minor importance.
.
The committed Westerner advocating first aid stations and vinegar on the beaches is not likely to make more than a temporary impact in places like Phuket where the jellyfish are such a minor danger. The local authorities and hotel managers might go along with safety measures while the spotlight is on them, but as that light fades they will return to the reality of problems impacting their lives and businesses in the here and now. Despite that scientists have found numbers of box jellyfish in the murky, shallow water along Phuket's northeast coast (where almost nobody swims), box jellies will not become a topic of concern until – or unless – someone is stung and killed. On other Thai islands and beach destinations that have yet to be stung, it's much the same.
.
On sleepy Koh Mak – statistically one of Thailand's highest risk areas with four recorded stingings, but no deaths – several years have passed since the last box jellyfish incident. But that may not indicate that the box jellies have disappeared. In the high season four resorts here (out of about 24) place nets off the beach to protect their guests (and guests of adjacent resorts). Still, in May 2014, I saw both Thai and foreign tourists swimming outside the nets, apparently unconcerned, despite the presence of warning notices. Both the memory and the vinegar, it seems, are running dry.
.
People making a living on Phuket and other islands have enough day-to-day problems on their minds. Let's hope there are not enough box jellyfish off their beaches to awaken them from this statistically happy slumber.
.
Things could change here in Phuket - but only after the fact - just as they are now changing on Koh Samui and Koh Phangan. It has taken six recorded deaths, and many non-fatal stingings, between these two islands to strike enough fear into officials and hoteliers to initiate serious action. But will this translate into on-going, long-term measures to combat box jellyfish and protect their visitors? That, surely, will mean copying Koh Mak by placing jellyfish nets off major beaches, and warning visitors with plenty of clear signs. Then come the accessible first aid poles with bottles of vinegar - hopefully the kind that don't run dry too quickly.
.

by John Everingham

Want help finding the ideal beach and beachfront hotel in Thailand? Advice is free from True Beachfront’s expert, John E. He’s visited virtually every beach in the country with a hotel, and photographed over 1,100 Thai beachfront hotels in this site, and more. E-mail john@beachf.com