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Casey Hawkins

It was June 2016. I was 26 at the time. I was traveling with friends around the island of Zanzibar in Tanzania, Africa.

I remember my face feeling like it was on fire. I don’t know whether I was more confused or frantic, considering moments earlier I was admiring colorful fish off the sandy white shores of Zanzibar. Had a shark taken my leg, or was I having a heart attack?

local man on boat

My screams of pain got the attention of the local snorkel guide. He swam over to me and used his arms to brace mine and keep my head above water. I thrashed around, yelling for help in between shrieks of terror. My goggles were fogged up and I felt trapped in my full-length wetsuit. As I tried to snap the goggle strap over my head, they flung back into my face along with a Portuguese man-o-war/blue bottle/floating terror jellyfish. The exotic luminescent purple blob smacked into the lens like something out of a horror film, before settling on the plastic nose bridge.

For a split second, I studied the exceptional colors of the jelly. Then in unison with another snorkeler, we tore the tentacles from my cheeks and neck and madly waved our hands around in an attempt to relieve the pain. Not knowing what species it was at the time, I looked into the eyes of my guide and asked him if I was going to die. He gave me a look all First Aid trainers tell their students to mask as best they can; the look of fear and pity as though he may be the last person I ever see. He began pulling me through the water and somehow I got onto another group’s boat. Wet-haired tourists dangled their heads over mine as I lay on the wooden bench seat. I remember hearing the voice of my guide saying something about having to swim to our boat. “No, no, no” I whimpered, like a child at the doctors’ about to receive a needle. He didn’t listen and tumbled me into the aqua blue Arabian Sea. As my limp body was dragged along, the temperate water skimmed across my face. 

Close up of snorkeler

I remember asking my friend if my face was disfigured. He assured me it was fine, but I didn’t believe him. As I lay there, in the most excruciating pain I’ve ever experienced, I imagined how different life would be from that point onwards. I remember thinking how weird it was to feel so conscious of everything going on around me, but stunned at the same time.

Not long after they dropped the sail, I heard one of the local men on board say the pain would be much better in half an hour. At some point in between that time, he bent over and smeared thick white paste onto my face with his finger. It had a gritty texture, which made me think it was ground up shells.

When we boarded the boat that morning, I couldn’t believe my friend had brought his red travel neck cushion with him. I mocked him for it on the way to the reef, but now I was grateful for the comfort it provided. Just as the man had anticipated, I felt 99 percent better almost as soon as thirty minutes had past. I even decided to sit up and join in on the group chat. Before braving my own reflection, I asked once more whether my face looked scarred. The group assured me it was fine, using a tone which made me question whether they thought I was embellishing on the level of pain I was in moments earlier. I used my phone camera to check for damage, and was surprised and almost happy to see that the red marks and puffiness I was left with was so minor in comparison to what I’d envisioned. 

Patient lying on neck cushion post jelly-fish sting

When we got back I went straight to my room and Googled species of jellyfish. After looking at photos and reading a couple of recounts from other victims, it was pretty clear I’d met with a blue bottle. I didn’t go in search for a hospital, or even a doctor, as I figured the resort could probably provide better care and comfort than any local hospital. In the middle of the night I woke with numb legs, causing me to immediately sit up in bed and reread the symptoms of jellyfish stings on my phone. The numbness probably lasted a few seconds at best but it felt like much longer and threw me into a state of panic. I jumped out of bed and walked around the room while having to remind myself to breath. I must have been so mentally exhausted to have fallen back asleep shortly after.

Since moving back to Australia, I’ve told my story several times to friends and family. A few have said they too have been stung on the body while swimming at the beach, and reiterated how painful it was. According to Google, the warmer the water, the deadlier and more painful the sting can be. The one that gave me the unforgettable poisonous hug was bright purple with two inner red spots and metre long tentacles. Unlike the blue ones that wash up Down Under and reach about golf ball size, my floating enemy was about the size of my fist.

Close up of Jellyfish

I’ve since been told I’m extremely lucky to have been far from the boat when it happened, as it meant my face was flushed with sea water as I was dragged along. Apparently the tentacles embed spores in the skin which can burst and release more poison if aggravated by fresh water or vinegar. I had several bottled of mineral water dumped on my face by my group as I lay down, so the swim I said “no, no, no” to may have actually saved my life.

Close up of scar.

This photo was taken about a week after the incident when I was living back in Tokyo.

General advice on how to treat blue bottle jellyfish stings:

  • If tentacles remain stuck to skin, pick off using fingers or tweezers if available.
  • Rinse area thoroughly with seawater to flush out stinging cells.
  • Immerse area in hot water, without burning the skin.
  • Do not rub with sand or rinse with vinegar.


Casey Hawkins grew up immersed in Australia’s sea, sun and surf culture. She first became a teacher because she was passionate about sharing ideas and experiences. Teaching has led her to explore some unique, remote locations and make friends with people from all walks of life. She is most passionate about learning and sharing their stories with others. Website: Nan’s Lucky Duck

The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and are meant as travel inspiration only. They do not reflect the opinions of Cover-More Insurance. You should always read the Policy Documents available from your travel insurance provider to understand the limits, exclusions and conditions of your policy and to ensure any activities you undertake are covered by your policy.