How to Avoid Injuries from Common Marine Animals

How to Avoid Injuries from Common Marine Animals

Every time divers enter the water, we plunge into a realm where we are guests. And like any conscientious traveler, we can minimize our risks when we take the time to educate ourselves regarding the inhabitants of the place we’re visiting. Fortunately very few aquatic animals are aggressive toward divers. However, it is important to remember that even the gentlest creature will defend itself and the vast majority of marine life injuries occur because of diver behaviors when we touch, step on, or startle an animal.

Let’s face it: diving would be dull without marine life. In Jupiter, we schedule our dives to maximize the possibilities of encountering certain marine life including lemon sharks, turtles, goliath groupers, and more. But in seeking one species, we will always encounter others—and some we may not recognize as hazardous.

Fire Coral

This one is easy to avoid. It doesn’t move and maintaining good buoyancy and keeping your hands to yourself greatly minimizes your risk. Most divers find themselves brushing against fire coral inadvertently or if a surge pushes them against it.

Fire coral isn’t a true coral despite its appearance and is more akin to a jellyfish. Found in Florida, the Caribbean and Bermuda areas, fire corals are bright yellow-green and brown and attach themselves to rocks, coral, and other stationary objects. You might not initially realize you’ve brushed against fire coral as the burning sensation may set in 5-30 minutes following the contact. Often a red rash will develop and when the stinging subsides, it will be replaced by itching. What to do? Rinse the infected area with seawater (not fresh water which can actually increase the pain). Apply vinegar or isopropyl alcohol to help neutralize the toxin. If you notice any fine hair-like bits on your skin, remove them with tweezers (they are the cnidea—stinging threads—and are capable of stinging again despite no longer being attached to the animal).


Jellyfish are non-aggressive, gelatinous, and often beautifully translucent animals that are surrounded by tentacles. Not all species pose a hazard to divers, but the Portuguese man-of-war is a notable exception.

Jellyfish are usually found near the surface of the water when light is weak, but they can also hang out in the water column, and can wash up on the beach (the Portuguese man-of-war looks like a crumpled black trash bag). Jellyfish injuries are almost always accidental when divers find themselves swimming within the animals trailing tentacles.

If stung, it is important to remove any remaining tentacles (see above regarding the use of tweezers—the same rule applies here). Vinegar or alcohol will help neutralize the cells. When clean, applying ice packs to the area may help alleviate pain. If the injury creates more than mild pain, continue medical care and seek professional medical assistance.

A Lionfish by Any Other Name

Lionfish, firefish, red lionfish, butterfly cod, peacock lionfish, or dinner. No matter what you commonly call a Pterois volitans, a run-in with a lionfish can ruin your whole day.  Native to the Indo-Pacific, the lionfish has invaded the Atlantic and can be found on reefs and shipwrecks as well as in mangrove and seagrass environments at depths ranging between one and 300 feet. They have no known predators and a single mature female can produce two million eggs per year. Divers have become the first line of defense against this invasive species, and lionfish derbies are popular events. The fish are easy to identify with their striped bodies and fleshy fins, and like many animals that move slowly, they have a built in defense system. Armed with 13 dorsal spines, 3 anal spines and a host of soft tentacles, the spines pack a venomous sting that can cause extreme pain and in some cases even respiratory distress and paralysis.

If stung

Stings are accompanied by a throbbing, intense pain. Keep your wits and ascend safely.  Topside, carefully remove any visible spine and apply pressure to the wound to control any bleeding. Soak the injured area in warm water for 30 minutes. With any injury involving venom, anaphylactic shock is a real risk. Sweatiness, nausea, breathing or pulse rate changes, or tremors are all signs you need professional medical attention.

Other Venomous Animals

Lionfishes hold the dubious distinction of ranking second in the number of human stings worldwide. The number one spot is held by stingrays. Surprised? Most of these injuries are caused in shallow water when a person accidentally steps on the docile animal.

Other venomous animals include scorpionfish, stonefish, and urchins. Scorpionfish and stonefish are often confused for one another, and they are masters of disguise, capable of disappearing into the reef. Both are popular photography subjects because they tend to remain stationary allowing the photographer to move in for a close-up. Both fishes have venomous spines, with the stonefish packing a particularly powerful wallop.

Scared yet?

Don’t be. Hazards exist all around us, regardless of our environment. Training, education, and awareness greatly reduce the likelihood of injury. Respect the ocean inhabitants and your chance of injury goes down even further.  It’s easy. Don’t harass marine life, stick your hands in dark holes (moray eels have sharp teeth), or interrupt any animal while it’s feeding. Be a considerate traveler. After all, we are all only guests under the sea.

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