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1,600-plus Florida beachgoers stung by jellyfish, county officials say

By Vivian Kuo, CNN
A swarm of purplish, stinging jellyfish is washed up on Cocoa Beach, Florida, on Saturday.
A swarm of purplish, stinging jellyfish is washed up on Cocoa Beach, Florida, on Saturday.
  • The jellyfish are visitors to central Florida's Atlantic beaches
  • They congregated in a 10-mile stretch off the coast of Brevard County
  • The mauve stinger jellyfish are small but "pretty potent," scientist says

(CNN) -- More than 1,600 people within a 10-mile stretch of central Florida's Atlantic beaches have been stung in the past week by a distinctive species of jellyfish not indigenous to North America, a rescue official said Tuesday.

Brevard County Ocean Rescue officials said they began flying warning flags at beaches from Cocoa Beach to Cape Canaveral last Tuesday, indicating either a medium or high hazard, along with another flag indicating dangerous marine life.

"From last Wednesday to Friday, we got about 600 reports. Saturday to (Tuesday), we got another thousand," Chief Jeff Scabarozi said.

Monty Graham, a scientist at Alabama's Dauphin Island Sea Lab, said the jellyfish appear to be what are known as mauve stingers, a species that often blooms in response to small climate cycles like El Niño.

"The interesting thing about these jellyfish is that they're very sporadic. They occur in heavy numbers, but not every year," he said.

Graham said the last time he had seen such a widespread outbreak in the United States was more than a decade ago. "They're much more common in the Mediterranean," he said. "Probably what we're seeing is a large population bloom in the Gulf of Mexico transported by the Gulf Stream wrapping around the coast of Florida."

All weekend long, countless numbers of jellyfish washed up on shores, standing out against the sand due to their characteristic purplish-reddish hue.

Graham said that although mauve stingers are smaller and much less familiar than the Portuguese man o' war and cannonball jellyfish that often wash up on Florida shores, the ruddy-colored animal can pack a punch.

"While they might be small, they're actually pretty potent. And unlike the others, these animals actually have stinging cells up on the top of their bells in addition to the stingers on their tentacles, which is uncommon."

When stung, mauve stinger victims may see a discoloration on their skin where contact was made, Graham said. "These guys will leave actual marks on you sometimes. It may stay with you for quite some time, but over time it will go away."

The stings cause itching, burning and rashes and can sometimes spur an allergic reaction. Although none of the stings reported in Brevard County was believed to be serious, officials said two people who were stung were taken to hospitals after suffering from respiratory distress. It was unclear whether the distress was directly caused by the stings or came from a pre-existing medical condition.

Most victims were being treated by a vinegar solution stocked at the various lifeguard stations.

Despite the abundance of visible jellyfish in the water, many trying to enjoy the Memorial Day weekend took their chances -- and suffered the repercussions.

"We've already gone through about 25 gallons of vinegar. Even so, a lot of people didn't go into the water," Scabarozi said. "I just want to know when they're going to leave."