In my mid-20s, I spent three months living in Broome, a coastal township in Western Australia famous for its moonrises, pink beaches, and pearl farms. Each morning during what is known locally as "the buildup" (the hot, muggy weeks heralding the wet season), I would stuff a towel in a bag and trudge out to where the red pindan soil -- distinctive to the Kimberley region -- marbles powdery dunes, longing to dunk my body in the postcard sea. Often, I could go no farther than the water's edge. Signs pitched by lifeguards along the beach showed a stick figure lashed by a mass of tentacles: Irukandji jellyfish.
The most common Irukandji, Carukia barnesi, are the size of a chickpea, and because they're colorless, in the ocean they're more or less invisible. The smaller ones might appear to you as the residue of a sneeze. The Irukandji's translucent bell, shaped like a tiny boxing glove, trails four tentacles, delicate as cotton thread and about three feet long. The jellyfish's sting doesn't hurt overmuch. The pain is perhaps equivalent to a mild static zap from a metal doorknob -- hardly even enough to make you want to suck your finger. The C. barnesi does not leave red welts, as other jellyfish do. You might miss the prick of its microscopic, stinging darts. You might think it's just the start of sunburn.
Worst-case scenario: You're dead by the following sunset. There are thought to be 25 species of Irukandji. One species, Malo kingi, is commonly known as "the king slayer." After the initial sting comes a procession of ever more dreadful symptoms: back pain, agitation, the sensation of crawling skin, vomiting. The heart can become arrhythmic. Fluid may build up in and around the lungs. Patients "beg their doctors to kill them, just to get it over with," the marine biologist Lisa-ann Gershwin told ABC Radio National in 2007.
It ends with:
A map of the range of jellyfish species on the wall read GLOBAL DOMINATION. As the crowd thinned out, I saw blue blubber jellies from Australia -- studded balls like spaniels' chew toys -- in an underlit tank that went from red to green to red. I saw the Pacific sea nettle, Vaseline- and cola-colored; I saw jellyfish that looked like the crushed Kleenex swept out of a house of mourners. A plaque boasted that "up to 5,000 jellyfish were bred behind the scenes as Ocean Invaders got ready to open." How strange to think of this swarm, cosseted and captive in so many glass tanks, when beyond the aquarium such a prodigious bloom would be eyed with trepidation, as a jittery forecast for the future of oceans.
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