Are Tiny Jellyfish Killing Great Barrier Reef Tourists?

Open Jaw

Just when you thought it was safe…

According to a cardiologist, two French tourists who died almost simultaneously this week while snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef were probably stung by the tiny but deadly Irukandji jellyfish.

The sudden death of the tourists has grabbed attention around the world. And it was reported yesterday that a 60-year-old British tourist also died on the reef this week, thought the cause of death is yet unknown.

The Irukandji jellyfish are the smallest and most lethal box jellyfish in the sea – just a cubic centimetre in size -- less than the size of a human fingernail. Irukandji inhabit Australia’s northern marine waters and, according to Wikipedia, “are able to fire their stingers into their victim, causing symptoms collectively known as Irukandji syndrome.”

The symptoms are far from pleasant. They include “excruciating muscle cramps in the arms and legs, severe pain in the back and kidneys, a burning sensation of the skin and face, headaches, nausea, restlessness, sweating, vomiting, an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and psychological phenomena such as the feeling of impending doom.”

The pair of French tourists, aged 74 and 76, suffered sudden heart attacks and were found dead and floating in the water at Michaelmas Cay, east of Cairns, on Wednesday.

The cause of their death is not officially known. One tourism operator in the region has rejected the jellyfish theory, saying the pair’s deaths were simply a “one-in-a-million” coincidence.

Other experts, however, consider the deaths were rather more than just a coincidence.

Cardiologist Dr. Ross Walker told ABC News that no matter what the health of the two tourists had been, and despite their ages, it was highly unlikely two people would die together in such quick succession.

“I think it’s highly likely they were stung by Irukandji,” Walker said.

Any finding of death by Irukandji would not be good for Australian tourism, although lethal life-forms are not exactly new in Australia. One of the dead French tourists was reportedly wearing a stinger suit, while the other was not, however officials noted that both tourists had pre-existing medical conditions.

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