After spending three days at the waveless (unfortunate) surf competition in Pondicherry, and searching other beaches in the area for waves, I finally got a ride to Mahabalipurum late Monday evening. As the cab turned into the town I immediately noticed less trash and cleaner streets. All the shops were cute, a little touristy, but nice. The road dead ended into the ocean. I looked out through the front window to see clean 3-4ft waves, coming in so consistently you could set your watch by it - in NC it would be a perfect day. It was beautiful, and the water looked clean! Much to my surprise, it got better. After leaping out of the car with gear in tow, I saw it: the point. Walking onto the beach, your eyes are drawn to the right by a large temple protected from erosion by boulders. I've never surfed anywhere but NC and I've never seen a point break like this in person. Holy crap. It broke perfectly and rolled from right to left all the way to shore, a solid 15+ second ride. I didn't know such amazing places existed!! I ran though what felt like hundreds of brightly painted fishing boats to where I unpacked my board and paddle. It felt great to get into the water and to feel the ocean rise and fall beneath my feet. As I took my place in the back of the surfing lineup, they all missed the next amazing wave because I got the normal gawks. I am standing up on my board, I am white, and I am a girl. The shock wore off quickly and surfing resumed. I could hardly wait my turn, but finally it came. The sun was setting fast as I caught the first best wave of my life. It seemed to go on forever as I carved up and down the face, paddling hard in the middle through a slow spot to stay out front, finally ending all the way at the beach over 100 yards away. I had the chance to do this 5 times before I was out of sunlight. I packed up and got a room at a beach front hotel for 1000 Rupees (around 20USD). The entrance was guarded by seahorse statues, so I knew it was a great place to stay! Throughout the night, I kept waking up to check my watch to see if it was time to get up and surf again.
Finally, the hour came. There was barely enough light to navigate the courtyard of the hotel out to the beach through the fishing boats. Sometimes the boats lurched right for you if picked up by a wave or their lines, which were very hard to see at dawn, would whip up out of the sand when pulled taught by a receding boat, nearly decapitating the sleepy surfer. I was the first one in the water, by a long shot. Barely awake, I caught two wake-up waves that I wiped out on. The third went extremely well, there may actually be cell-phone video evidence somewhere of it, if I can dig it up. As I turned off the wave to paddle back, I was hit by a little side chop and fell off the board. No big deal. I fall all the time, I don't always make it off the wave and back to the lineup without getting wet (although, it makes me happy when I do!). No big deal. In North Carolina the waters are littered with jelly fish: moon jellies, cannonball jellies, thimble jellies, and the occasional small sea nettle. I've been a Marine Scientist for 6+ years now, and I know my jellies. Moons and cannonballs are completely harmless. Thimbles are often misidentified as "sea lice." Their larval form is so small you can't see them, and when they get stuck in between your skin and bathing suit they get pissed and give you little stings that look like bug bites. Some people may experience a mild reaction with some nausea or drowsiness, but nothing extreme. The sea nettles are responsible for the "biggest" stings. People come out of the water with lines or strips where the tentacles have brushed across their skin, leaving behind irritation caused by little toxic harpoons from the jelly's cnidocytes. It stings, then later it itches, some people feel ill. Small potatoes.
I fall off my board in tropical waters in southern India, and right before I climb back on I feel as if a million fibers of the softest silk are wrapping around my legs and feet. That feeling lasts for 0.00001 seconds, long enough for my mind to go, "shit."
At that moment, hundreds of little toxin laden barbs were propelled into my dermal layer. It stung. I scrambled up on my board and waited for the white water to push me in. When I was back on shore, I left my board with a friend and sprinted into the small village. I went fast, so I went alone, no one was up for sprints that early. My legs were burning and I wanted to rip them off! I was crying a little as the sun came up on the horizon. Alone, I ran through the streets hoping with all of my being that somewhere would be open for me to get vinegar so that I could deactivate the stinging cells. I banged on kitchen doors at the hotel, restaurants; I asked women cooking on open flame pans in the streets. Nothing. I was truly miserable. Never in my life have I wanted to pee myself so badly either, in a pinch you can pee on a jellyfish sting to help. I couldn't pee. At this point I was limping around, teary eyed, in my baggies and bikini top in a third world country while my legs started to swell. I finally came across a few fishermen. Somehow, I was able to communicate to them what happened. One of them said, "coconut oil" and signaled for me to follow him. Completely out of options, I followed. We walked incredibly slowly back to his humble home where he sat me on some steps inside his doorway. Before I could realize what was going on, he turned around with a bucket of fresh water and dumped it all over my legs. HOLY FREAKIN' CRAP BATMAN! I don't know if you know, but I know, that the LAST thing you want to put on a tropical jellyfish sting is fresh water. You want to kill the small foreign bodies in your skin, not piss them off and make them fire again! Now I'm really in pain. My legs are stinging as the fisherman opens a bottle of oil and starts dumping it on my legs and rubbing it in for me. About this time a tired but angry looking woman comes around the corner at the top of the stairs. Not only was there a blonde girl in a bikini sitting in her home making painful noises very early in the morning, but her husband was rubbing his hands full of all of her cooking oil all over this blonde girl's legs. I decided to take my leave and head back over to the hotel. The coconut oil was not helping at all, and I was still in a LOT of pain. When I got back to the hotel, there was a man in a towel asking about my jelly sting and if I needed anything. I promptly said, "VINEGAR!" He sent a boy for some vinegar from the kitchen and told me to wait in my room. I realize that I can't get into my room, because the key is on the beach with a friend.
Bottle one of vinegar comes, and I slowly start pouring it on my legs, only to realize that the coconut oil is repelling it. I ask for a spare key to get into my room, so that I can use some soap to get the coconut oil off so I can apply the vinegar so I can stop the stinging. At this point some of my internal organs start to cramp up. My breathing gets a little labored, but tolerable. Nausea was mild. I can't wait to get into my room. The hotel help returns with a bag.... a bag OF KEYS! They have no idea which key is the one to my room. There I sit, as a young man picks through a bag of 100 or so keys, trying each key, one at a time, attempting to unlock my door. My legs are burning, my guts are cramping, my body is sweating. Maybe now is a good time to mention that I did not get a look at the jelly that stung me. I have no idea what species it was. All I know is that it was HUGE, or there were a few of them. My stings covered the entire calf of my left leg, a little on the top of my left foot, a spot on the back of my right calf and my entire right foot. Rule of thumb is if it covers more than 1/3 of a limb you should seek medical attention. I don't often follow the rule of thumb, so why start now? One of the other surfers I had met came back during this time and offered me to use his room, which I happily accepted. I rinsed the coconut oil off and applied some vinegar (that only hurt a little). I laid down on the porch and waited for the nausea to subside. Things started to look up. The key to my room came back (they never found another in the bottomless bag of keys). I sent for more vinegar. Finally, I was able to use my powerful marine biology skills. I pulled out my credit card, lathered my legs and started the scraping process. I wanted to remove as many as the little barbs from my skin as I could. I pushed HARD. Then for any I may have missed, I soaked toilet paper in vinegar and applied it to my legs and let it sit. I then repeated the scraping process, followed by one more vinegar application, and one more scraping. This was finally completed three hours after the initial sting. Shops were starting to open. Nothing else to do but get some breakfast, coffee, and some drugs. After eating I stocked up on some ibuprofen and Allegra. My sting was looking good (It didn't look terrible till day two when I woke up on an Indian train with some cuddling cockroaches).
End of story. So, what lessons should you take away?
1) The world is full of awesome spots to Surf and SUP. Don't let the jellies scare you; Mahabalipurum is an awesome spot if you ever have the chance to check it out. I, for one, will be going back.
2) Always pack for the area you are traveling too... even though you don't have your car full of gear (I really like the list Katie put together) you can still pack a few key items from the "mother list" that will make life a little easier! In India I have found it difficult to find these things easily, and it may be the same for many other developing countries.
a. Vinegar for jelly stings
b. Spare leash
c. Screw driver
e. Duct tape
f. Instant ice packs** (these would have been nice in Holland, too)
g. First aid kit
h. Ocean Potion ICE
3) If you are stung by a jellyfish in tropical waters, don't go running through the streets of a small town crying to fishermen who will pour freshwater on your stings.
a. If you have packed well, apply vinegar soaked dressing immediately. Follow up with lathering soap on the sting and scraping the area with a credit card or razor. Repeat these steps until you are happy.
b. If you did not pack well: try to pee on yourself (there are mixed views on this, but if it works for some, why not give it a try). Follow up by scraping with a credit card or razor (use soap if available). Repeat these steps until you are happy.
c. You should have packed vinegar, again, if you didn't, you can apply a mud paste of seawater and sand. Follow up by scraping with a credit card or razor (use soap if available). Repeat these steps until you are happy.
d. Take plenty (i.e., >600mg of Ibuprofen) of pain and swelling reducers.
e. Take an allergy medication. It WILL help with the itching.
f. Don't SCRATCH (oh, yes, it feels soooo good, but don't). Opening the little blisters removes your skin and can cause scaring.
g. Pink lotion (i.e., Chamomile, Calamine) or a mix of Lidocane, Tea Tree Oil, and Aloe (i.e. Ocean Potion ICE).