What are stingers and should you be scared?

The Great Barrier Reef is home to a beautiful array of marine life. From colourful corals to playful turtles and fish, but what less friendly animals might you encounter?

When researching and visiting the Great Barrier Reef you’ll likely see the word ‘stinger’ thrown around a lot, but what exactly are they?

Stingers are a sub-species of jellyfish, specifically species that can be dangerous or potentially lethal. They are generally found along the tropical coastlines of Australia and are some of the most feared marine animals down under.

Stingers are particularly dangerous, and according to experts ‘kick everything else’s butt’ when compared to other venomous animals. The box jellyfish is even considered the most venomous animal in the world. These tiny but deadly animals favour calm, warm, clear waters, which is why they are commonly found around the Great Barrier Reef. Stingers are most commonly found around the top of Australia, but contrary to popular belief they can travel as far south as Sydney and Melbourne.

The most commonly found species of stingers at the Great Barrier Reef are the Box Jellyfish and the Irukandji. The easiest way to identify jellyfish is by the shape of their body (bell) and length of their tentacles.

  • The Box Jellyfish

    Box Jellyfish are large, transparent stingers with a box-shaped bell. They have up to 15 tentacles growing from each corner of their square bell. Though their bodies are small, their tentacles reach up to 3m long. They have also developed an incredibly toxic venom. It instantly stuns or kills their prey so that they are not injured when hunting.

    A person stung by a Box jellyfish will instantly know. Their stings cause an immediate burning sensation to the skin, and large welts will appear at contact points. If stung by a Box Jellyfish, the affected area should be immediately doused in vinegar. If you don’t have vinegar, wash thoroughly with sea water. Immediately contact emergency services if you see someone with a sting. Though Box Jellyfish are highly venomous there is an antivenom available and will be distributed by medical professionals.

  • Irukandji

    Irukandji are much smaller than their Box Jellyfish cousins. With their bell measuring a mere 2cm and their tentacles rarely reaching a metre in length, the Irukandji are incredibly hard to spot in water.

    People often do not feel Irukandji stings, and this leads to under reporting. Additionally, reactions to the sting may take an hour to materialise. Symptoms include swelling, headache and vomiting, the sting can also increase blood pressure to life threatening levels.

    Irukandji can be endemic to shallows around the coast, causing a real hazard to swimmers. If you are stung, you must immediately pour vinegar over the area. It is also important you seek medical assistance. .

Avoiding stings

The best way to avoid stings from Box and Irukandji jellyfish is to not get in the water during peak stinger season. Additionally, be sure to check signage and local warnings for stinger presence. Many beaches close over peak season as a safety precaution. Some beaches may install jellyfish nets; however, Irukandji can still fit through the nets. We recommend you wear a stinger suit if swimming during this time.

Fear not though, all our Great Barrier Reef tours are in waters away from jellyfish habitat. Our guides will help keep you safe in the water, and make sure you can enjoy a fear-free Great Barrier Reef trip.

Related article: What is the best time to visit the Great Barrier Reef?