Your Guide to South Padre Island & More...
Est. 2012
...and more!

Venomous Marine LIfe

People from all over the U.S. visit South Padre Island, Texas to relax and enjoy themselves on the white, sandy beaches and warm gulf waters.  It is important to understand and accept that the beaches and waters are shared by various types of marine life that call the Gulf of Mexico home. 

Always pay close attention to your surroundings when entering the water and look for jelly fish that may be swimming around you.  Waves that break ahead of you can send a jelly fish in your direction quickly; potentially exposing you to their tentacles and sting.

Shuffle your feet as you enter the water to help avoid stepping on a sting ray and provoking and attack.

Please note that the South Padre Island Beach Patrol are well equipped and ready to respond to any jelly fish and/or sting ray encounter on the beach.  Call 956 - 761 - 5454 for non-emergency issues and a beach patrol unit will respond within minutes to your location.

Dial 911 for all life-threatening emergencies.
Jellyfish South Padre Island.  Portugese Man-of-war

The Portuguese Man-of-War (above) is one type of venomous marine life that can be spotted on the beaches of South Padre Island.  Its venomous tentacles can deliver a powerful sting that can last up to 30 minutes or more if left untreated.  We will discuss the various types of venomous marine life that is found in the waters and on the shores of the southern Texas coast.
Jelly Fish

Jellyfish are free-swimming, non-aggressive, gelatinous marine animals surrounded by tentacles. These tentacles are covered with sacs (nematocysts) that are filled with poison (venom) that can cause a painful to sometimes life-threatening sting. 

Jellyfish are usually found near the surface of the water during times of diminished light, floating in the water column, or after washing up on the beach. Jellyfish stings are generally accidental - from swimming or wading into a jellyfish or carelessly handling them.

Some types of jellyfish have reproductive jelly gatherings 8 to 10 days after a full moon, thus there is an increase in the number of jellyfish found at that time.

Jellyfish Sting Symptoms

  • Symptoms include an intense, stinging pain, itching, rash, and raised welts.
  • The progressive effects of a jellyfish sting may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, lymph node swelling, abdominal pain, numbness/tingling, and muscle spasms.
  • Severe reactions can cause difficulty breathing, coma, and death.
Jelly fish sting symptoms

When to Seek Medical Care

Seek immediate medical treatment if the person stung has:

  • Difficulty breathing, difficulty swallowing, chest pain, or intense pain at the site of the sting.

  • If the person has been stung in the mouth or placed tentacles in their mouth and are having voice changes, difficulty swallowing, or swelling of the tongue or lips.

  • If the sting happened to someone who is very young or old.

  • If the sting involves a large area of the body, the face, or genitals.

  • If the patient continues to have itching, redness, pain, swelling of the skin (cellulitis) around the sting, see a doctor. The doctor may prescribe:

    • diphenhydramine (Benadryl) to help with the itching,

    • pain medication for pain, and/or

    • topical steroids or steroids by mouth to help with the swelling and itching.

    • The doctor may also prescribe antibiotics if the patient has cellulitis. Take all medications as directed and until they are gone.

  • If it has been longer than 10 years since the patient's last tetanus shot.

Jelly Fish Stings
- Treatment

A jelly fish or Portuguese Man-of-war can deliver a powerful sting that can last 30 minutes or more if left untreated.  Scarring is also possible in severe cases.

1.  Get out of the water immediately.  It's much easier to deal with the sting out of the water.

2.  Rinse the affected area with sea water. 
DO NOT RINSE WITH FRESH WATER!  Fresh water will cause any stinging cells that haven't fired (called nematocysts) to do so and release their venom, possibly worsening the situation.  Avoid rubbing the area with your bare skin as toxins may spread to other parts of your body.

3.  Carefully look for and remove any visible tentacles.  Use a seashell, stick, towel, or credit card to carefully remove any tentacles that may be still on the skin.  Also make sure that you check your clothing as the tentacles can also stick to swimwear. 


Moon Jelly Fish
Moon jelly fish - South Padre Island
Moon Jelly fish are also know as Aurelia aurita scientifically.  The medusa is translucent, usually about 25–40 cm in diameter, and can be recognized by its four horseshoe-shaped gonads, easily seen through the top of the bell.  They swim horizontally, keeping the bell near the surface at all times. This allows the tentacles to be spread over the largest possible area, in order to better catch food. It is capable of only limited motion, and drifts with the current, even when swimming.

Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean: Aurelia aurita are found near the coast, in mostly warm and tropical waters. They are prevalent in both inshore seas and oceans. Their habitat includes the coastal waters of all zones and they occur in huge numbers.
Cannonball Jelly Fish (a.k.a Cabbage head)
Cannonball Jelly Fish - Cabbage Head - South Padre island
Cannonball jellies have round white bells that have a brown or purple band of pigment below them.  They grow up to 8 or 10 inches in diameter and are completely harmless to human beings.

Cannonballs are most commonly known to inhabit the southeastern coast of the United States, including the Gulf Coast. On the southeast coast they are extremely abundant in the fall and summer months. During these months, cannonballs make up over 16% of the biomass in the shallow inshore areas.


Blue Buttons
Blue button jelly - South Padre Island
Although it has 'jelly' in its name, the blue button jelly (Porpita porpita) is not a jellyfish, or sea jelly.  Blue button jellies are relatively small, and measure about 1 inch in diameter. They consist of a hard, golden brown, gas-filled float in the center, surrounded by blue, purple or yellow hydroids, which look like tentacles. The tentacles have stinging cells called nematocysts.   It's best to avoid these beautiful organisms if you see them - blue button jellies do not have a lethal sting, but they can cause skin irritation when touched.   

  Blue button jellies are found in warm waters off Europe, in the Gulf of Mexico, Mediterranean Sea, New Zealand, and southern U.S. These hydroids live on the ocean surface, are sometimes blown in to shore, and sometimes seen by the thousands.


Portuguese Man-of-War

South Padre Island.  Portugese Man-of-warThe Portuguese Man-of-War may be mistaken for a jellyfish, however, it is actually a siphonophore (an animal that is made up of a colony of organisms working together).  Man-of-wars are found, sometimes in groups of 1,000 or more, floating in warm waters throughout the world's oceans.  They have no independent means of propulsion and either drift with the currents or catch the wind with their pneumatophores. 

They are also known as "bluebottles" due to the distinctive color of the pneumatophore
(gas-filled bladder).  The tentacles can reach lengths of up to
165 feet, however, the average length found on the shores of South Padre Island are approximately 4-10 feet. 

A Man-of-War that is found on the beach can still deliver a powerful sting if you come in contact with their tentacles for several weeks after it has washed ashore.

Be on the look out for sting rays in calm, shallow water.  They will generally swim away from humans as soon as they sense our presence.  Shuffling your feet while walking into the water is a great way to let them know you are nearby and help avoid stepping on them.
Sting Rays

Stingrays are aquatic, cartilaginous vertebrates who are members of the shark family. They have flat bodies and winglike fins. Stingrays are nonassertive and can be found lying in the sand in shallow water at the beach or swimming free in open waters. Most are saltwater creatures, but a few live in fresh water.

Stingrays do not actually attack. Injuries from these sharklike creatures are usually defensive actions. Once disturbed, their venomous stinger (spine) near the base of their tails lashes out and can cause punctures or lacerations (cuts). Their mouth parts do not cause injury, but a hickey can occur if they try to suck you.

Most stingray injuries typically occur when a person accidentally steps on a ray as it lies on the shallow, sandy bottom of a beach area. Rays often cover themselves with sand for camouflage while resting or hiding from predators, so they can be hard to see. When stepped upon or harassed, they swing or arch their tail in the direction of the intruder as a defensive maneuver to protect themselves. This drives their spine into the unwanted intruder. The ray’s tail can reach all the way to the front of its head for protection.

Stingray Injury Symptoms

The stinger, or spine near the base of the tail, is hard and sharp with backward pointing barbs (retroserrations) that can cause a jagged cut. It can be difficult to remove from a wound because of the back-facing barbs. There can be 1-4 spines at the base of the ray’s tail depending on the species.

A skinlike covering, the sheath, over the stinger encloses the venom glands. The spine lies in a groove along the tail. Injury from a stingray can damage a person's muscles or tendons in addition to the cut or puncture wound. Part of the sheath and spine can be left in the wound. The venom is composed of many different substances that cause tissue to break down and die as well as cause severe pain.

  • The toxins contained in the sheath can cause the following symptoms:

    • Immediate and severe pain radiating up the limb and lasting up to 48 hours

    • Swelling in the wounded area

    • Bleeding from the wound

    • Color change in the area of injury—first dusky blue, then red

    • Sweating

    • Low blood pressure

    • Faintness, weakness, dizziness

    • Salivation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea

    • Headache

    • Shortness of breath

    • Seizure

    • Muscle cramps and pain, paralysis

    • Heart rhythm irregularities

    • Death, though rare, has been reported from a puncture of the heart or abdomen and from loss of blood.

When to Seek Medical Care

Because stingray injuries usually hurt so much, medical attention is definitely needed. Pain management, wound care, a tetanus vaccine update, and antibiotics are the most likely treatments.

  • Seek medical care if generalized symptoms, such as faintness or sweating, are felt. These symptoms indicate that venom has been absorbed.
  • If the injury does not hurt, but you need a tetanus booster, then medical attention should be sought.
  • If you have redness, swelling, infection, or delayed healing, seek medical attention.

In most cases, a stingray injury should be handled in a hospital's emergency department. If the injured person is in severe distress with pain, bleeding, vomiting, and faintness, then 911 should be called for ambulance transport to a medical facility.

  • Transport by ambulance, if available, is the best choice so treatment can be started en route. If an ambulance is not available, go by car. If a boat ride is needed to shore, call ahead to arrange an ambulance or car for transportation to a medical facility.
  • A tetanus booster is needed if it has been more than 5 years since the last tetanus booster. Tetanus prevention is needed if the person has never had a tetanus vaccination.

Stingray Injury Treatment

Self-Care at Home

Care of the injured person begins at the scene and is first directed at safe rescue and removal of the victim from the water.

A stingray injury that does not need to be checked by a doctor is rare.

  • Home first aid measures should be started, but a medical evaluation is also warranted.

  • Lay the person down.

  • If the person is vomiting, position the person on the side so they do not inhale vomit.

  • Stop the bleeding by applying direct pressure with a clean cloth or whatever is available such as a beach towel.

  • You may attempt to remove the stinger with tweezers to decrease toxin exposure if doing so will not cause further injury. Be careful not to injure yourself with the stinger.

  • If there is no pain, then treat as a puncture wound or laceration by cleaning and disinfecting with soap and water.

  • If there is pain, bleeding, or more than a minor wound, and symptoms such as faintness or sweating (which indicate that venom has been absorbed into the body), arrange for transportation to a medical facility.

    • If in a remote area, treat the pain by immersing the injured area in water as hot (but not burning) as the person is able to tolerate (113°F or 45°C) for 30-90 minutes. This neutralizes the painful effects of the venom because the venom is inactivated by heat.

    • Oral pain medication such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) can be given if the person is not vomiting and not allergic to it.
  • If you belong to Divers Alert Network (DAN), call their emergency number to obtain medical evacuation assistance and arrange for referral to a medical care facility. Your DAN membership card has details.

Medical Treatment

Stingray injury care is mainly directed at monitoring the injured person's vital signs, providing pain relief, and treating the wound.

  • Vital signs: Treatment for abnormal vital signs is the first step.

    • If blood pressure is low, fluids are given through an IV.

    • Additional medications may be needed to maintain a proper blood pressure.

    • Sometimes, hospitalization is required if the person is very ill.
  • Pain: There is no antivenom (antidote) to stingray toxin. The venom is a protein and is broken down by heat, so placing the injured area in water as hot as the person can tolerate (113°F or 45°C) for 30-90 minutes can dramatically relieve the pain. A word of caution: Once the area is numb, care must be taken to prevent a burn injury from the hot water.

    • Pain medication, such as narcotics, given through an IV may be needed until the heat has neutralized the toxin.

    • Numbing medications injected into the injured area help to relieve the pain and allow the doctor to explore the wound to look for injuries to structures below without causing further pain.
  • Wound care: The doctor cleans the wound, removes foreign matter, and looks for injuries to tendons, nerves, blood vessels, and other body structures. If it has been more than 5 years since the last tetanus booster, one should be given.

    • Antibiotics are usually given because the wound is contaminated with bacteria from the stinger and from the seawater. The doctor needs to consider the specific types of marine organisms that caused the injury when choosing the antibiotics used to treat this wound.

    • The wound is left open, then closed with stitches a few days later if it has not become infected. If the wound is repaired on the initial visit, it is usually closed loosely to allow any infection to easily drain.

    • If important structures, such as nerves, tendons, or arteries, are damaged, then a surgeon (such as a hand specialist) needs to be consulted to assist in the management of the wound. Cleaning and repair in the operating room may be needed.