Blog: A taste of what you may find on Maui

Portuguese Man o’War

This week there have been some reports of Portuguese Man o’War sightings here on Maui. They are found in every ocean except the Arctic.

A Portuguese Man o’War I found on the beach in 2021

What is a Portuguese Man o’War?

It is a species of siphonophore and actually a colony of zooids all working together as one. The zooids cannot move on their own, so the colony has a translucent purple/blue float which allows the colony to move as the wind blows it. The float reminded a scientist of 18th century Portuguese war ship sails, hence the name. They feed on plankton and small fish.

The most dangerous part of this are the tentacles which are extremely venomous. They can range from 30-100 feet in length.

BCB’s Blue Planet has this short dramatic Youtube video about these creatures.

They may look a bit like jellyfish, but are actually not related. They have natural predators, here in Hawaii turtles. Yay turtles!

What to do when you are stung by a Portuguese man o’war

So you got stung by one of the tentacles. Some of these barbs will burn right away, others will sit on your skin like a ticking time bomb. What do you do?

  • rinse the area well with ocean water
  • pat the area down with vinegar (try putting vinegar on a facecloth or towel and wrapping it around the affected area). I’m told applying urine will not help.
  • soaking in hot water will further help neutralize
  • apply some sort of calming lotion
  • do not cover, do not scratch or rub

I am told the burning sting will dissipate after a few hours (which I’m sure will feel like an eternity).

Here is a video from Hawaii’s KHON2 News with further information. According to the video, life guards have vinegar and heat packs. I haven’t verified that information myself.

According to my online search it is rare that people die from these stings. Do get out of the water if you see them in the ocean, and do not approach them on the beach. Those tentacles can still get you even when dead.