Stinging Plankton

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Last updated: April 12th, 2023

I took two nice long swims: one yesterday at Hawksnest Bay and another the day before at Trunk Bay. I kept feeling these little stings but didn’t see anything, and the pain only lasted for a second or two, so I just kept on swimming. But now I have all these little bumps, and they ITCH!!!

The probable culprit is stinging plankton with the disgusting name “sea lice.” These tiny plankton, some so small that you can’t even see them, have a microscopic little barb called a nematocyst. They activate when the plankton makes contact with something, like another plankton, small fish, or you, and releases an irritating protein that can develop into an itchy itch later on.

Hawksnest Surf

I can attest to their presence at Hawknest and Trunk Bays, and I’ve heard reports from Caneel Bay and even out on the East End, so it looks like they’ll be around for a while. Until that evil tide or current that brought them this way takes them somewhere else. The sooner, the better!

Treatment is a really hot shower, as hot as you can stand it, and then vinegar or a meat tenderizer paste to break down the protein. Helps a bit, but you can count on the itch coming back after a while. The itching usually lasts a few days to as much as a week.

I’ve found that this stuff, you can get a Chelsea Benadryl Itch Stopping Gel, is effective, at least for a time.

This plankton, along with other possible itchy-stingy organisms like jellyfish, for example, exist in the sea at all times, but usually in such small concentrations that they won’t ever be a nuisance. Now apparently, there are enough of them around our bays to virtually guarantee an encounter.

The question I have is, how will we know when it’s safe to take a swim without paying that itching price? I think I’ll wait for someone (besides me) brave enough to test out the situation emerges from a long swim or snorkel and lets me know that they didn’t feel any little stings.

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