The Gel from Hell
By Tom Neale

No Diving in Here
I realize that the Divine Creator knows a whole lot more than me, but I still can’t help but wonder what the heck He was thinking about when He came up with the stinging nettle. Actually, maybe that’s what He was thinking about:  “Heck.” Although you and I know He was thinking about the real word, which is “Hell,” which I’m not supposed to say on this site.

If He was thinking about that and supreme punishments, He proved once again (not that He needs to prove anything) that He knows His stuff. There are a lot of guys like me (especially like me) hanging out on the water on whom He could use it with great appropriateness. Just for starters, I’ve been saying “He” and many wiser people will tell you that I should be saying “She” or “She/He.” So, once again, I’m in trouble from the getgo, which means I’ve probably got another encounter with a nettle coming up soon.

I guess I could try to escape the wrath and spend a lot of time up in Maine or even on the upper Chesapeake Bay where the water is fresh, such as in the Sassafras River.  Or maybe I could just swim in a bath tub. But right now I’m in the lower Chesapeake Bay and my sins are catching up with me. I just wish there hadn’t been so many. I think the worst experience I’ve had with these hellatious creatures is when they get themselves sucked into and plastered all over the external sea strainer over the intake for my air conditioning on a hot summer day (or worse still, night). I have to dive under the boat in the very murky water to pull them off.  I creep along under the bottom, holding my breath, peering fearfully through the murk. I’ve watched lots of underwater monster movies, but none of those monsters come close to that monstrous gelatinous mass slowly looming into my vision, tentacles reaching out. My general reaction is to shoot up to the surface, forget the aircondoo, and resolve myself to a boat that’s hot as, well, you guessed it.

Stinging nettles are found along much of the Atlantic east coast, with some areas much worse than others.  These things have made apparently such an impression on NOAA that they have a web site which helps in the prediction of heavy concentrations of these in the Chesapeake Bay.

There are different types of creatures in different waters that people refer to as “stinging nettles” or words of similar import. The idea, I’m sure, is to be sure that there’s a Hell for you wherever you boat, if, of course, you deserve one. If you aren’t familiar with something like this where you are, then I’d say you’re a far better person than me. In some waters, for example, particularly tropical waters, you can reap your rewards with the Portuguese Man O’ War. It looks like an odd shaped bluish/purple (usually) balloon floating on the surface but has tentacles underneath. These are sometimes referred to (incorrectly) as “jelly fish” but aren’t. Their sting is extremely painful and they should be avoided completely. I understand they’ve even been known to cause death in some circumstances. They aren’t at all like the Chesapeake Bay type of stinging nettle, but I hang out in tropical waters a lot and I can tell you I try really hard to behave down there.

To complicate matters further, some gelatinous creatures, often referred to as “jelly fish,” do not sting, but it’s generally no fun finding out for sure if you don’t already know whether that “thing” in the water is the bad type.
 I’m told that the proper name for what I experience in the Chesapeake is “Sea Nettles.” They are gelatinous. They also have tentacles that make horns and a pointed tail seem pale in comparison. Those with red tentacles seem to cause the most pain. When I was growing up on the rivers of Tidewater Virginia we called them “blood suckers” because the welt they left was red and a little sticky.

If you’re lucky enough not to know much about stinging nettles and would like to improve your education, there are various sources much better than sinning and diving into infested water on a summer day. For example, in addition to the sites above, you might check out JELLYFISH IN CHESAPEAKE BAY AND NEARBY WATERS by Dr. Jennifer E. Purcell, Associate Professor, University of Maryland System, Center for Environmental and Estuarine Studies, Horn Point Environmental Laboratory. P.O. Box 775, Cambridge, MD  21613.

During some summers, stinging nettles are much worse than others. Sometimes it seems you can walk across the water on them, other times you barely see any all season long. During these times many people who get in the water just try to keep a watchful eye. But even this isn’t as easy as it sounds.  It’s possible to get stung even by small pieces of the stinging nettle which may have broken off from wave action or other causes. These are hard to see. And the tentacles of these creatures are often around 3 feet long.

There’s a product available which is a mesh pool suspended from floats. You can deploy it from a dock or your boat, and, says the manufacturer, it keeps the creatures out.  The pool comes in three sizes. I saw the first one tied to the stern of the inventor’s sailboat many, many years ago in the Mobjack Bay. Their site is  (800-962-9020).

David Nolte, president of Nettle Net ® Boat Pool ® says, “It's a good time to be a stinging sea nettle/jellyfish…… their populations are on the increase along the East Coast, particularly in New Jersey (Barnegat Bay & Toms River) and North Carolina (Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds). Warming of waters, acidification of waters, over fishing and decline of predators (large fish and sea turtles), and, especially eutrophication (excess nitrogen in the waters which fuels the food chain below the nettles) are all contributing to their growth.” Now that’s not what I call encouraging.

on Stinging Nettles

1. Look before you leap.

2. Have someone on the boat keep a lookout for nettles when you are in the water, but be aware that they can come from the deep.

3. Watch the tide. Tidal flow can sometimes mean more or less nettles, depending on where you are and where they are. They usually move with the tide.

Click Here for More Tips

Others deal with nettles by trying to protect themselves.  I’ve seen people use everything from long sleeve T-shirts to nylon stockings to wet suits. Of course, none of these give complete protection and if a piece of nettle gets inside you’ll wish you had just grinned and bared it. Other people apply heavy grease. I’ve known of salvage divers who rub on copious amounts of motor oil to protect themselves from sea lice, which are tiny devilish creatures (also usually found in tropical waters) that cause intolerably itching rashes and welts for most victims. I’ve had rashes from these that festered and itched for weeks. (They don’t much bother my angelic wife, Mel.) Some use Vaseline. Others find that extremely heavy applications of oily water-resistant suntan lotion helps. This would presumably be much healthier than motor oil.

There is a product we have heard about and seen used by others, but I haven’t tried it and so I can’t recommend it one way or another. It’s a lotion with an ingredient that is claimed to protect the user from jellyfish and sea lice. The product is called SafeSea ® and it comes with or without sunblock. And if you do get stung, they also make a Jellyfish After Sting Gel®.

I’ve heard that turtles eat stinging nettles and that some cultures use them for some sort of food. I don’t know if any of that is true. I’ve heard a lot of things. Including me screaming when I get stung. But I think the Democrats and Republicans should get together and try to figure a way to use them as an alternate energy source. They sure give me energy. Heck, I’ve been known to almost walk on water when I swim into a mess of them.

Copyright 2004-2010 Tom Neale

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