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Eyeing up funds to track 'boxies'

Dr Jamie Seymour, Associate Professor for the Queensland Tropical Health Alliance at the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, Cairns Campus, with a box jellyfish in a jar.
Dr Jamie Seymour, Associate Professor for the Queensland Tropical Health Alliance at the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, Cairns Campus, with a box jellyfish in a jar. Brendan Francis

THEY have 24 eyes, can move as fast in the water as an Olympic swimmer, can travel up to 30km in a day and have venom strong enough to kill a man.

But despite the risks posed by box jellyfish in Mackay's waters there has been almost no research into where they come from and where they might hang out, across the region's 31 beaches.

It is this fear of the unknown that continues to push people away from the beach, and surf life saving numbers drop because people don't have the confidence to swim in the ocean.

But a leading jellyfish expert said if research is done people would become less fearful about swimming in Mackay waters.

James Cook University toxinologist Jamie Seymour said studies carried out in Townsville and Cairns revealed when the jellyfish were most likely to arrive and where they would move to.

Professor Seymour has been stung by box jellyfish "hundreds of thousands of times”,and said he was willing to do the research in Mackay but there was just no funding for it.

He had to scrounge to do the similar research in Cairns and Townsville, spending his own money as well as getting some from Cairns Regional Council, National Geographic and the Lions Club.

If a similar study was carried out in Mackay, people could feel safer knowing where to swim.

As for irukandji, he said they were more likely to be offshore than along Mackay beaches.

"We know that 80 per cent of the animals will be on 20 per cent of the beach but we need to do the research to know which area that is,” he said.

"The current thoughts are that they breed in the creeks and creek mouths and we see them when the wet season starts.”

Surfer and councillor Ross Gee supported a study into the movements of box jellyfish saying it could help sway the perception the region's beaches were unsafe.

He said with a drop in surf lifesaving membership numbers, the community was not confident swimming in the ocean any more.

Cr Gee argued Mackay's beaches were actually some of the safest in Queensland because they don't have dangerous rips.

All he recommended was that people wore stinger suits.

"I don't let my kids go in the car without a seatbelt on, ride a bike without a helmet and go swimming unless they have a stinger suit on,” he said.

Mackay Tourism chief executive office Tas Webber said the message to tourists should be to wear stinger suits all year around.

He also supported a study which would increase the use of beaches and make them more accessible to tourists.

"We definitely don't have the budget to fund it but we would definitely support it,” he said.

"But still the most important thing for Mackay tourism is the safety of our guests.”

Professor Seymour said the jellyfish were hunting their food - prawns and fish by trapping them into the shore.

Juvenile 'boxies' eat prawns, using the tentacles to grab the prawns and releasing toxins to kill them before drawing the tentacle and prawn into their mouth.

Once the box jellyfish becomes larger than the size of a fist, it changes its diet from prawns to fish.

It is at this stage that the toxin in the tentacles changes to a cardio toxin, one that attacks the heart.

Professor Seymour said because the heart system in both fish and humans is similar, the toxin can kill people too.

He said that for about a 70kg person it would require about 2m of contact with a tentacle to kill someone.

But they are intelligent animals, Professor Seymour said, they don't want to sting humans and if people walk slowly into the water they would use their 24 eyes to see them and avoid them.

"If people run into the water and blunder into them, the animal will retaliate,” he said.

A stinger suit would also stop these stings from becoming fatal because there wouldn't be enough area on the exposed skin for 2m of tentacles to sting.

A Surf Life Saving Queensland spokesperson said there had been no reported box jellyfish stings at patrolled beaches in the Mackay region this summer.

"(However) the organisation would support additional research, however its focus is on the ongoing safety of beachgoers, prevention and protection,” she said.

"We currently work closely with external agencies, researchers and departments and provide assistance by sharing information, data, statistics and when and where possible sending marine specimens to researchers.”

Topics:  box jellyfish james cook university jamie seymour mackay beaches mackay tourism marine stingers


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