Monday, February 2, 2009

Blue Bottles

Two things every Canadian knows about Australia: the toilets swirl the other way when they flush, and the country is full of poisonous and venomous creatures. The first is nonsense (I suppose you could say it's a load of crap) since Australian toilets don't swirl at all; the second, though, is quite true. There is an amazing number of dangerous and deadly creatures here.
And no, I'm not just talking about AFL fans on a bender. Anyone who's read Bill Bryson's book, In A Sunburnt Country, knows the stats: all of the world's most venomous snakes, spiders, jellyfish and insects are found in this country. This week a teenager was stung by an irukandji jellyfish off Fraser Island. The kid survived, but people have died from a single sting of this one-inch-wide packet of death. And that's just one of many tiny, deadly creatures that lurk in the woods, waters, deserts and back yards.
Of course, faced with this reality, Australians have two choices: they can either stay inside and lock the doors, or they can take sensible precautions and go ahead and enjoy the outdoors. Naturally most of them do the latter.
The trick for visitors is figuring out what sensible precautions look like. So far we've not seen much in the way of dangerous wildlife, at least not that we know of (there was a massive spider in the pool the other day, and I saw a snake on the beach that was about a metre and a half long, but since we don't know what kind they were, we're not counting them.) What we have seen, though, are bluebottles. These are little jellyfish that are known in other parts of the world as the Portugese man o'war. They give a nasty sting, which is apparently extremely painful although it's not deadly.
You see them on the beaches quite regularly, but they don't seem to keep people out of the water. And that's where it gets tricky for a visitor. You arrive at a beach, it's a hot day and you're ready for a swim. You go to the flags in the sand that mark the lifeguards' positions, and read the board that tells you the day's conditions: Stingers are present, it says. You look on the sand at the high tide mark, and sure enough you can see them every couple of metres, a blueish air sack a bit bigger than a marble or perhaps as big as a golf ball and a long, thin blue tail that can be a couple of metres long.
If we encountered them in Canada, we'd stay out the water. In Australia, though, the beaches are full and nobody seems to worry too much about them. People swim, someone occasionally gets stung, and life goes on.
The other day, though, I saw a sight that was keeping just about every Australian out of the water. After dropping Ana off at school I went for my usual walk from Sunrise Beach to Sunshine Beach. There were thousands upon thousands of bluebottles on the sand. Instead of one or two here and there, there were big clumps of them all along the shore. You couldn't even walk in the shallow water without seeing them swishing all around. It was amazing.
Yet even then, there were a couple of people in the water. I stopped to chat to the lifeguard at Sunshine Beach and asked him about them. "Some people don't worry about them at all," he said, "and other people get really freaked out if there's even one around." His tone implied that the sensible choice is somewhere between those two extremes, and that's certainly where I plan to stay.
For more on the bluebottle, go here:

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