Over the coming weeks, I plan to share personal stories spanning back as far as my memory will allow. But to kick off the series, I’ve decided to write about a fairly recent experience; not because of its significance or appeal, but simply because I told it during the weekend and the words are still fresh in my mind. The experience marked the first and only time I’ve questioned whether I’m dying based on physical pain alone. It also demonstrated how life really does go on with or without each of us, and that others needn’t suffer out of sympathy because of our own misfortune. The experience led me to question how I’d feel if no one grieved as a result of my death, and whether I’m willing to accept my insignificance beyond my immediate family. I believe we all like to think and act as though we are more than just the child of two average human beings, but in reality, most of us can be summed up as hard workers, quiet neighbours or good friends at best.
I REMEMBER the burning sensation on my face, feeling like I was trapped inside a fire ball. I couldn’t comprehend what was happening as I broke through the water’s surface. Hours earlier our group of 15 set off in a wooden boat from the shores of Zanzibar Island, to explore reefs and sand banks dotted along the coast. Had a shark taken my leg, or was I having a heart attack? It was like I’d scissor-kicked my way from an underwater heaven up to a fiery hell.
I needed answers, and quick. My involuntary cries of pain thankfully got the attention of the local snorkel guide. He swam over to me and used his strong meaty arms to brace mine and keep my head above water. I thrashed around, yelling for help in between shrieks of terror. My goggles were fogged and my movements restricted because of my full-length wetsuit. I used my right hand to break the strong air seal between my skin and the goggles. But as I tried to snap the strap over my head, the goggles flung back into my face along with a Portuguese man-o-war/blue bottle/floating terror jellyfish. Like the carcass that splatted on the car’s windshield in Jurassic Park, the exotic luminescent purple blob smacked into my goggle lens before settling on the plastic nose bridge.
For a split second, my attention turned to the exceptional colours and texture of my tormentor. Then some how my stunned brain managed to order my hands to take action. In unison with another snorkeler, we tore the tentacles from my cheeks and neck and let out a bunch of expletives while madly waving our hands in an attempt to relieve the pain. Not knowing what species it was at the time, I looked into the bulging dark eyes of the guide and asked him if I was going to die. I can’t remember what he said or if he even answered, but he didn’t do a good job of masking his combined look of fear and pity. He began pulling me through the water and lifted me onto another group’s boat. Wet-haired tourists dangled their heads over mine as I lay on the wooden bench seat. I remember hearing the voice of my guide saying something about having to swim to our boat. “No, no, no” I whimpered, like a child at the doctors’ about to receive a needle. He didn’t listen and tumbled me into the aqua blue Arabian Sea. As my limp body was dragged along, the temperate water skimmed across my face.
Once on board, I remember asking my friend if my face was disfigured. He assured me it was fine, but I didn’t believe him. As I lay there, in the most excruciating pain I’ve ever experienced, I imagined the way people would stare for the rest of my life—that’s if I had a life at all. I kept flicking from thought to thought, like my mind was a view finder toy. Death; grouse disfigurement; why am I shaking so much?; how am I so conscious of everything going on around me but can’t move; then back to death. Five to ten minutes into the one-and-a-half-hour journey back to the resort, the group’s conversation got louder and their focus shifted. First, they began comparing what marine life they saw underwater. It didn’t take long before laughter crept in and they started discussing evening plans to hold a party. I wasn’t sure how I felt about their jolliness at the time, half thinking they should remain sombre and notably concerned about my wellbeing. Once I decided they owe me nothing, not even their sympathy, I lay there thinking how insignificant we all are as individuals.
Not long after the crew dropped the sail, I heard one of the local men on board say the pain would be much better in half an hour. At some point in between that time, he or another shaved-headed man lent over and smeared thick white paste onto my face with his long bony finger. It had a gritty texture, which made me think it was ground up shells.
When we boarded the boat that morning I couldn’t believe my friend had brought his red travel neck cushion with him. I mocked him for it, and when he noticed I started to feel better, he mocked me back for dissing his transportation prerequisites. Just as the bony fingered man had anticipated, I felt 99 percent better almost as soon as thirty minutes had past. I even decided to sit up and join in on the group chat. Before braving my own reflection, I asked once more whether my face looked scarred. The group assured me it was fine, using a tone which made me question whether they thought I was embellishing on the level of pain I was in moments earlier. I used my phone’s camera to check for damaged skin, and was surprised and almost happy to see that the red marks and puffiness I was left with was so minor in comparison to what I’d envisioned.
When we got back, I went straight to my room and Googled species of jellyfish. After looking at photos and reading a couple of recounts from other victims, it was pretty clear I’d met with a blue bottle. I didn’t go in search for a hospital, or even a doctor, as I figured the resort could probably provide better care and comfort than any local hospital. Not knowing what to do next, I called Mum and sobbed into the phone while explaining what happened. She sounded concerned and told me to rest up. In the middle of the night I woke with numb legs, causing me to immediately sit up in bed and reread the symptoms of jellyfish stings on my phone. The numbness probably lasted a few seconds at best, but it felt like much longer and threw me into a state of panic. I jumped out of bed and walked around the room while having to remind myself to breathe. I must have been so mentally exhausted to have fallen back asleep shortly after. In the morning I woke to hear stories of the wild party the group had put on in one of the couple’s villas.
Since moving back to Australia, I’ve told my story several times to friends and family. A few have said they too have been stung on the body while swimming at the beach, and reiterated how painful it was. According to Google, the warmer the water, the deadlier and more painful the sting can be. The one that gave me the unforgettable poisonous hug was bright purple, with two inner red spots and metre long tentacles. Unlike the blue ones that wash up around the east coast and reach about the size of a golf ball, my floating enemy was about the size of my fist.
It kind of looked like this, but seemed more vibrant!
I’ve since been told I’m extremely lucky to have been far from the boat when it happened, as it meant my face was flushed with sea water as I was dragged along. Apparently the tentacles embed spores in the skin which can burst and release more poison if aggravated by fresh water or vinegar. I had several bottles of mineral water dumped on my face by my group as I lay down, so the swim I shouted “no, no, no” to could have actually saved my life.
These photos was taken about a week and a half after the incident, when I was living back in Tokyo. It looks like I have acne on my cheek but the red bumps were a result of the sting. Around a month later, I got the opportunity to write an article on obtaining a PADI dive certificate in southern Japan. I jumped at the offer without thinking too much about the harrowing experience I had in Africa. I ended up living on the island of Okinawa for an entire month– diving, snorkelling and/or swimming daily. On my second dive, my foot touched a small jellyfish caught up in a current. My whole body tightened and I remained uneasy until I reentered the boat. Whilst living on the island, I documented my dives by making short videos. It gave me the idea to create a movie about Zanzibar, which included short clips recorded on the day I was stung. Friends and family who watched the video made comments like, “look at that water” and “wow, how relaxing!” I couldn’t help but smirk and think how it was anything but. In December I visited a Sydney beach, its sand covered in small dehydrated blue bottles. My friend called out to get my attention before dramatically stomping on one, creating a loud pop. He looked like a kid, jumping up and down on the spot like it was an empty juice box. I walked past several exploded carcasses, and a few survivors buried deep into the wet sand. I remembered reading somewhere that the blue bottle doesn’t have a heart or brain.
The above video incorporates photos taken from the day I swam face first into the deadly jellyfish. If you enjoyed this story, or have your own to share, please make sure you leave a comment below!