Encounters with the Jellyfish
The most recent one was in St. Lucia, in late February 2015. I was in the cove between between the two volcanic Pitons, those two pointed green mountains that adorn every tourist brochure for the island. On the evening of our first day there, I went for an impromptu swim with my swim partner, Andrey.
It was only half a mile or so, not long in open water swimming terms, but long enough to qualify as one of the most scenic swims of my life (swimming around the Cape of Good Hope and around Manhattan also make the list). The water was a clear, deep indigo blue and, less than 100 meters on either side of us, were the two sharp volcanic peaks rising straight up from water. The light was transitioning from day to dusk. The air temperature was 70 degrees fahrenheit (versus the 15 degrees back in New York City). I couldn’t imagine any other place I would rather be.
Except that, as we stopped for a break at the end of Petit Piton, we noticed that we were getting pinpricks all over.
“It must be pieces of jellyfish that have broken off and are being washed into the cove,” I said knowingly to Andrey.
We started swimming back to the boat, and by the time we got there, the pinpricks were became more frequent and sharper. “Leave it to the jellyfish,” I thought, “to ruin the swim.”
Everyone in our party had gone into the water and gotten pinpricked. Once back on the boat, we compared our jellyfish sting marks. Mine were among the worst. And they continued to worsen. While everyone else’s jellyfish stings dried up and disappeared that night, mine just deepened and reddened and became terribly itchy.
I wasn’t in agony, but I was discomfited. I was also alone in my misery. The rest of the party would look sympathetically me as I scratched and scratched the red rashes that had materialized on my skin. Eventually, someone convinced me to take an antihistamine. The itching finally started to subside. But I still had the sting marks, over three weeks later.
“Ahh, it’s nothing,” I told them. “It’s just part of open water swimming. I’m used to it.”
* * *
The worst one was in South Africa. It was 2005, and I was going to swim around Cape Agulhas, the most southern point in Africa.
Swimming around Cape Agulhas is not a must-do swim for an open water swimmer. For one, it’s not particularly challenging, with a modest distance (4.7 miles) and moderate temperatures (approximately 60-65 degree Fahrenheit water). A decent swimmer, depending on currents, should be able to get around it in two-plus hours. But it’s also a hassle to get to, being at the most southern point of Africa. And, it’s a hassle to arrange everything, like the day to swim, the boat, the pilot, the crew. So Cape Agulhas remains relatively unswum.
I had gone to Cape Town to train in cold waters for a potential swim across the English Channel. Since I had already traveled the 4,800 miles to Cape Town, it didn’t seem that much more of a hassle to add another 110 miles to get down to Agulhas. And, after the difficulties of exiting my job in New York and getting down to Cape Town and finding a place to live and figuring out how to drive on the wrong side of the road, the difficulties of arranging the swim around Cape Agulhas didn’t seem all that difficult.
I was also enchanted with the concept of swimming around the bottom point of Africa. At that most southern point, there would be nothing between me and Antarctica except the warm Agulas current battling it out with the cold Benguela one. Currents that had, over the centuries, wrecked, and sank, hundreds of ships. Currents that were also famous for attracting a rich and varied marine life. I was fascinated with the idea of swimming in those waters.
When I arrived in Agulhas, a desolate town at the end of the continent, I was not thinking about jellyfish. What I was thinking about were the large predators that were definitively known to inhabit those waters. All of South Africa is known for its great white sharks, but I had heard that the waters around Agulhas were “particularly sharky.” I was anxious. Even though there has never been a case of a shark attacking a swimmer swimming next to a boat (which I would be doing), and even though I would be swimming with an electric shark repellant device, I was still anxious. After all, there is always a first time for everything.
I was with Peter Bales, my crew member and representative from the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association in Cape Town. He was responsible for ensuring that my swim was official, meaning that I had swum the distance I said I would swim; that I hadn’t received any help from anyone while swimming; and that I swam in a bathing suit, goggles and cap without any swimming aids. We went to meet Trail, a fisherman in Agulhas, who would be the boat pilot for my swim. We walked into the front hallway of his house, and immediately on display, were two dozen pictures of great white sharks with their jaws wide open. Their sharp jagged teeth were very visible. I took a sharp, deep breath. Trail laughed.
“I’ve caught and tagged over 200 great whites,” he bragged. I nodded. This was not really a conversation I wanted to continue.
“But you don’t need to worry,” he said. “I know their patterns. And where you’re swimming, they don’t really come.” I nodded again. His friend George came in behind us. George and Trail had grown up together, and George was going to be helping Trail on the boat.
“And if any come,” George announced in a thick South African accent, “we’ll just push them away. All you need to worry about is swimming.” I nodded again.
The next morning, we got up early and went out to the boat. The sea, thankfully, was relatively calm. The sky was immense and layered with long silver, grey, and white clouds. We started to make our way to the starting point.
I was quiet in the boat. The dinner discussion the night before had finally moved away from the great whites, but it was still hard not to think about them patrolling the entire coast of South Africa, from Durban all the way up to Namibia, with a special concentration around Cape Agulhas.
My anxiety was not helped by the fact that this was my first, real, solo swim. All my prior swims had been with other people, either as part of a race or in a group. But, here, down at the bottom tip of Africa, it was just me and the boat. In just a few minutes, I was going to jump into the water and swim by myself in waters that had snapped steel tankers in two and that sheltered long, sinewy predators that like to attack slower moving creatures.
All this I was contemplating when I heard Peter suddenly call out. “Erica, I think we have a problem.”
I looked up.
“How well do you do with blue bottles?” he asked.
“Blue bottles?” I said. “What are those?”
He pointed to the water. It was an apt description. I saw strings floating in the water with translucent blue bottles about the size of of a giant gumball attached every six inches to the strings.
“What are they?” I asked. “I’ve never heard of them.”
“They’re a type of jellyfish,” he responded. “Do you know if you’re allergic?”
I looked at him blankly. I am always the first to get bitten by mosquitos. I have a terrible reaction to poison ivy. I had had some mild encounters with jellyfish at Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, New York, and a terrible reaction to the jellyfish in the Strait of Gibraltar. But those encounters were with normal jellyfish, not a jellyfish that merited a special, and exotic name, like blue bottles.
“I don’t know,” I said dumbly.
“They can be very poisonous,” he explained. “If you’re allergic, you might not be able to breathe.”
“Do you want to swim?” he added.
That, I felt, was a trick question. Of course I wanted to swim. But my swim had been predicated on swimming with the great whites. Not the blue bottles!
He and I looked at each other for a minute. He said that we’ve come all this way and that I might as well get in the water and swim. He said that if it looked like I was really having trouble, he could always pull me out.”
“Ok,” I said, somewhat reluctantly. “That sounds like a plan.”
It was, I knew, the best plan. Despite the relative easiness of planning this swim, this was going to be my best shot at completing it. Trail fished by day and wasn’t always available. The weather would not necessarily be this kind the next time. I was here now, in my swimsuit, on the boat, ready to swim. The only thing standing in the way were the blue bottles.
The starting point was located right next to a shipwreck. Trail moved the boat in as close to shore as he could. Peter gave me his instructions about how to get to shore, and what I needed to do to start. The water had started to kick up by now, and I was a little more nervous. Trail, George and Peter could see that I was procrastinating. Peter finally realized he might need to help me get in. “Do you want me to help you swim in?” he asked.
Finally, I smiled. “Oh! Yes, I would really like that!”
We both put on our caps. He jumped in first, and I followed. He swam with me, close to the shore, and then told me to swim out to the shore and walk out, making sure to clear the water. I was supposed to raise my hand when I was ready. That was the signal to start the clock. He swam back to the boat. I swam on to the shore, walked out, raised my hand, and then started my swim.
In the water, all I could think about was the blue bottles and when I would run into them. On the remaining time on the boat, after Peter had pointed them out to me, I had secretly hoped that a great wave would come and suddenly wash the blue bottles away from me. Of course that didn’t happen.
It took an hour before I ran into them. They were impossible to fight. It was as if I was swimming through strings of Christmas lights, except the lights were little blue bottles emitting tiny little electic shocks. They wrapped themselves around my arms, my legs, and my torso. I would free myself from one strand, only to wrap myself up in another. I could feel the stings, but they weren’t that bad. They felt like all the other jellyfish stings I had encountered before: sharp, but fleeting, pinpricks. My body was being pinpricked everywhere, but I seemed to be swimming fine and I could breathe. So I kept going.
I finished the swim. I didn’t see any great white sharks, and my encounters with the jellyfish only lasted five or ten minutes. The swim took me two hours and three minutes, and I was the third swimmer to have swum it. Even though it is not a must-do swim, I am proud to be able to say that.
The first day there were some welts on my skin, but they didn’t bother me that much. The second day, there were more welts on my skin, and now they were beginning to itch. The third day, my whole body turned into an angry red rash (fortunately only my body, not my face). Everything itched, and I was in agony. I was on the verge of becoming crazy.
I called up a swimming friend who was a doctor and begged him for an answer. “Blue bottles,” he said. “Yes. Those can be really bad.”
He sent me to a pharmacist, who looked at me and said, “Hmm. A lot of toxins must have gotten into your skin.”
“Toxins,” I thought. “Toxins in my body. All from these little blue bottles that could be mistaken for blue Christmas tree lights. All from wanting to swim in the same waters as the great white sharks.” I took the medicine and prayed that it would start working immediately rather than the twelve hours that the pharmacist had told me it would take.
The pharmacist was right of course. It took about twelve hours before the itching subsided, and another 12 hours before the red rash began to recede. I started to feel normal again.
Normal enough, anyway, to start planning my next swim.