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