Landy Blair emerged from the ocean off of Ala Moana Beach Park with pain radiating throughout his body and welts covering his neck, shoulders and back.
The culprit? A swarm of jellyfish that delivered about 20 stings.
“Imagine someone taking a match or cigarette and just putting it on your skin,” Blair said of the sting. “It’s a very sharp burning. It could almost feel like a hot knife, a knife you put on a fire and put on your skin.”
A dousing of vinegar, a scalding hot shower to break down the toxins and a lot of sweating ensued.
It was the late 1980s, and for the mechanical engineer the start of two decades of research on the jellyfish population that he and local scientists say has ballooned in recent years in waters off of the southern coast of Oahu.
A recent, first-ever global study of jellyfish numbers shows that the invertebrates are increasing in the majority of the world’s coastal waters, including Hawaii. Japan has been inundated by the giant Nomura jellyfish, which can grow up to six feet in diameter. The gellatinous masses have wreaked havoc on the local fishing industry and a couple of years ago sank a 10-ton fishing trawler, according to numerous news reports. They’ve also shut down nuclear power plants in California, Japan and Denmark. And scientists say they’ve taken over ultra-polluted regions of ocean referred to as dead zones.
The National Science Foundation says the increases have turned some marine environments into “jellytoriums.”
“In recent years, massive blooms of stinging jellyfish and jellyfish-like creatures have overrun some of the world’s most important fisheries and tourist destinations – even transforming large swaths of them into veritable jellytoriums,” according to the foundation’s website Jellyfish Gone Wild!
Jellyfish blooms have caused hundreds of millions in losses worldwide to the fishing and tourism industries since the 1980s, according to the foundation.
NSF attributes the trend to highly polluted areas where jellyfish face few predators and competitors, as well as overfishing and rising water temperatures associated with climate change.
But there has yet to be conclusive evidence on what factors are playing a role in southern Oahu waters, according to Angel Yanagihara, a University of Hawaii professor who has been studying the population in Waikiki for two decades.
While she said that the population around Waikiki has “exploded,” she emphasized that because Hawaii is surrounded by deep waters, it could be spared from the more extreme population increases in other parts of the world, thought to be due to climate change and pollution.
“Oahu is surrounded by very deep ocean,” she said. “So we are not likely to see such dramatic changes like off the coast of Florida where the ocean shelf is shallow. The deep ocean off our shore would tend to minimize our human impact as far as runoff, etc. Having said that, I think it’s been clearly shown worldwide the impact of manmade changes.”
She said that Mamala Bay, off of Oahu’s southern coast, could be most susceptible to these types of human impacts, where there is runoff and extensive fishing. She said seawall protected areas could also create ideal nurseries for the jellyfish.
Long-term data on Hawaii’s jellyfish numbers doesn’t exist. But Blair, the hapless victim of the Ala Moana jellyfish bloom, and Yanagihara, both said that the box jellyfish population, known as one of the most venomous, had risen sharply since the 1980s.
Blair, who now works for the city’s Ocean Safety Division, began a meticulous, independent study of jellyfish off Waikiki in the late 1980s. For years, he entered the water at night, eight to 10 days after a full moon when jellyfish swoon the near shore to reproduce, and counted them.
In 2001, he pulled out a record 1,700 jellyfish in a marathon 17-hour session session that began at midnight.
“I was exhausted and gave up, but there was a lot more,” he said. “Plus I’d been stung a bunch of times and it zapped my energy.”
Working in conjunction with local scientists to compile past data while gathering his own numbers, Blair found a startling trend.
Jellyfish in waters off Waikiki were rare up until the 1980s. Blair said that there were single sightings in 1948, 1951, 1980 and 1981. But the incidence trended sharply upward in the late 1980s, with Waikiki being inundated by the jellyfish almost every lunar cycle until 1994, when it became a full 12 cycles a year, every year up to the present.
He said the jellyfish counts have fluctuated annually from 2,500 to more than 10,000 a year.
Yanagihara took over the vigil in the late 1990s — one night she and her assistants pulled out 2,500 jellyfish, their all-time high in a section of water off of Waikiki that they have been using as a control site.
The scientists cut off their tentacles, which are put in test tubes, place the bodies in a separate container, and truck them back to the lab for studies.
Every month, signs go up along Waikiki beaches warning that the jellyfish have arrived.
It can kill a beach day, depending on one’s level of alarm about the inundation.
For George Kam, who has been swimming in the waters off of Waikiki for four decades, it just means a good time to go stand-up paddle boarding. A well-known surfer, he holds the title of Ambassador of Aloha for Quicksilver in Honolulu.
Kam said that he didn’t recall large blooms of jellyfish off of Waikiki two decades ago. But he doubted that the swarms that exist now could be attributed to an ailing marine environment. He said that there were plenty of fish, sea turtles and monk seals in the water.
“That theory doesn’t really fly,” he said.
Neither the state or county has comprehensive data on how many people are stung each year in waters off of Waikiki — most stings probably go unreported. But sporadic news reports indicate it can be a lot.
In 2007, 164 people were stung in one day off Waikiki, according to the Honolulu Advertiser. Another 100 people were stung during a bloom in 2010, sending three people to the hospital, KITV reported. And then there was the infamous 2001 invasion, a record year for the venemous organisms. The Star Bulletin reported 220 cases of stings in a mere 12-hour period.
Mike McCarthy, president of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, said that he hadn’t heard of any significant injuries from the jellyfish or that it was a big problem.
“I have not heard of it being a significant issue,” he said. “I think the water safety personnel and the lifeguards do a good job of warning people. It’s part of nature. You have to respect the ocean. It’s a beautiful place to be, but you always have to be respectful.”
Blair also said that the jellyfish shouldn’t deter Waikiki’s tourists because they arrive at predictable times.
“Those that are concerned about it could time their visits so they wouldn’t come during the influxes,” he said. “If they are concerned about it, they can swim in a pool and wait until they are gone.”
A researcher swims with a giant jellyfish off the coast of Argentina, courtesy of the National Science Foundation: