Not a Tentacle to Stand On
Diana Nyad and the Truth About the Box
If Diana Nyad’s box jellyfish fatality rates were accurate, you’d find dead bodies littering every box-prone beach in the world. But you don’t.
Unless you are a shrimp or small fish, your chance of dying in the Florida Straits from the mere touch of a box jellyfish tentacle is almost zero. But saying so doesn’t make Diana sound very heroic, so she flips the odds:
Diana Nyad fibs about box jelly fatality rates.
Nyad likes to inform her audiences that box jellies have “the most potent venom on planet earth.” That may be true for some species of box jellyfish, but not for the ones who visit the Florida Straits. According to Rick O’Connor, an educator with Florida’s Sea Grant program, the box jellies in the Straits “are not the deadly ones known from Australia.”
There are around 50 species of box jellyfish. Those with the potent venom inhabit the Pacific, not the Florida Straits and the Gulf of Mexico. O’Connor could only find one account of a local death-by-box. “There was a report,” he writes, “of a small child who died after being stung by one in 1991. However there are reports of young kids dying from the Portuguese man-of-war as well.” (See “Box Jellies in the Gulf of Mexico, 4 Dec 2015.”) In other words, the box jellies Nyad encountered are not the assassins she always makes them out to be.
I contacted three other box jelly experts, and each one said the same thing: Nyad’s claims about the box jelly are false.
Box jellyfish stings are like burns: They can hurt a lot, but they rarely kill. A bad burn over a large percentage of your body may do you in, especially if you can’t get to a hospital. But the number of such deaths as a percentage of the total number of burns is minuscule.
Nyad got stung. She felt like she was on fire, and it scared the hell out of her. But with two doctors, an ER nurse, and a box jellyfish expert on her crew, she wasn’t going to die.
For the great majority of bites, stings, or other forms of poisoning, the danger is either drowning after being stung or an allergic reaction to the venom. (Jellyfish Stings, University of Florida Health)
South African marathon swimmer Cameron Bellamy writes eloquently and honestly about the multiple box jelly stings he suffered during a training swim in Barbardos: “It felt like someone was electrocuting me and burning me alive at the same time.” “From my experience,” he concludes, “I know I can handle 1 box jellyfish sting and keep going — although this would be accompanied by serious risk.” Horrifying, then, but not fatal.
But Diana had to turn her mundane but terrifying encounter into an act of heroism, so she remade the box jelly into a killer whose sting only Diana Nyad can withstand. Otherwise, she’d just be one more ordinary soul out of the thousands or millions who have survived an encounter with the box. That would be too painful to bear.
Courtesy of Lynn Kubasek.