Irukandji sting on Great Barrier Reef prompts warning

Irukandji jellyfish have been blamed for a cluster of stings on Fraser Island. Ayllie White was stung by an Irukandji jellyfish while swimming at Fitzroy Island in the Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Jo Ward

It started as a tingling sensation on her neck but within minutes, Ayllie White’s legs were heavy and she was terrified she might not make it to shore.

She did not know it, but the 39-year-old had been stung by an Irukandji jellyfish, one of the most venomous creatures in the world.

The sting and resulting Irukandji syndrome would cut her heart function to 25 per cent and end her Great Barrier Reef holiday with two nights in intensive care.

At first, Mrs White thought sea mites could have been to blame for the pains she felt while snorkelling with husband Jo Ward on the Great Barrier Reef on Friday.

“As we were swimming around White Rock (on Fitzroy Island), I felt quite an intense tingling sensation on my neck,” she said.

“… Then about five minutes later I just had a searing pain across my neck that was much more localised then the tingling had been.”

The communications consultant, now living in Mount Martha on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, turned to tell her husband she was going to make the 50-metre swim to shore.

But the former Cairns Hospital media manager hadn’t gone far when she started to seriously worry she might not make it.

“I started to swim in and at that point my limbs became really heavy,” she said.

“I started to struggle to breathe and my chest felt very tight and about halfway in I knew I was in some trouble.”

But she did make it to shore, where dive shop workers well-versed in treating stings, though rarely this serious, poured vinegar on her neck and put her on oxygen.

A chopper arrived to airlift Mrs White to the hospital at which she used to work, where she was treated by world leading stinger specialists and convinced to front the media to draw attention to the dangers.

A Cairns Hospital spokeswoman said the facility usually treated about 15 to 20 marine stings a year with one or two as serious as Mrs White’s encounter.

Mrs White said diving the reef was a “magical”, often once-in-a-lifetime experience tourists should not miss out on but wanted people to be aware of the dangers.

Mrs White was wearing a full-body stinger suit but not the optional hood that would have protected her neck.

After her terrifying experience, she said she would never go in the water in stinger season without a suit and would consider upgrading to the hood.

“I think there’s a bit of a misconception up here that you can’t get stung out at the reef or out at Fitzroy Island because it’s away from the mainland,” she said.

“And also people would say it’s quite early in the stinger season and also that you need the heavy rain to wash the stingers from the rivers and creeks, where they live and they haven’t had a heavy rain up here.

“My message is, the advice would be to protect yourself from November to May… but also just be aware of the environment that you’re getting into and understand the symptoms and designs of when you’ve been stung.”

The Irukandji jellyfish is small and often difficult to see. Stings can be lethal but there have been only a handful of recorded deaths.

The initial sting is often not felt but can quickly develop into irukandji syndrome, bringing crippling pain over minutes or hours.

Queensland Health recommends immediate hospitalisation if suffering the symptoms, such as restlessness, sweating, nausea, vomiting and severe pain affecting the limbs, back, abdomen or chest. Australian Resuscitation Council advice for dealing with stingersCall for help (call for an ambulance immediately on 000 if the patient is extremely unwell).Check for level of consciousness and assess airway, breathing, circulation, and resuscitate if required – early resuscitation after major stings from Chironex box jellies has saved lives in the past few years.Douse the sting site liberally with vinegar to neutralise the stinging cells – unless the sting is from a blue bottle, in which case wash off with water. Pick off any tentacles.Seek medical aid as soon as possible. Call for an ambulance if this has not already occurred, if there is persistent pain or any ongoing or worsening symptoms.

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