watch out for these dangerous sea creatures!

watch out for these dangerous sea creatures!


There are over 300 fish species and endless varieties of other marine species inhabiting the Central Mediterranean region, and nature enabled those organisms to develop mechanisms that aid in their survival and evolution, to catch food and defend themselves against predators.

Dr David James Sammut, author of a two-part article ‘Dangerous creatures of the Maltese sea: Injuries and treatment’ in the Malta Medical Journal, laid down a thorough analysis of harmful organisms that roam the Maltese waters, how to watch out for them and how to deal with any injuries.

The treatments mentioned below are not evidence-based, as barely any scientific studies are currently available.

Serious injuries are often rare and human activity, rather than the sea creatures are the cause of them. Samut says that miscalculation of risky bathing in strong currents and scuba diving when one is not perfectly fit can result in fatalities.

“Probably the worst of all injuries are incurred when being hit by a powerboat or jet ski while snorkelling or swimming, when there is a complete neglect for safety measures. Red buoys should be therefore used when one is snorkelling in a heavy marine traffic zone. Only by respecting the sea and its environment, and by abiding to safety procedures, can these potentially fatal situations be avoided.”

So watch out for these little (and not so little) perils along our coastline and beyond this summer.

Venomous organisms

A group of marine organisms have naturally developed venomous defense mechanisms they use against predators and to catch food. Like all other sea creatures, they are cold blooded and their venom is thermo labile, ie, deactivated by heat; therefore, heating the area by immersing it in hot water will minimize the trauma.

The Bristle Worm (Busuf)

What should I watch out for?

Watch out for a worm that’s bright red in color with rows of venomous white hairs along its sides. These hairs are fired into any offending organism when provoked. It lives on rocky bottoms.

Does it hurt?

Injury is normally inflicted when the worm is touched with bare hands, as the hairs stick to the skin and cause intense itching. Rubbing of the area should be avoided so that the venom is not pushed deeper into the skin. Pain normally lasts up to four hours and it is advisable to cautiously pull out the white hairs in order to ease the pain.

How should the injury be treated?

The area is to be heated by pouring on or immersing in hot, but not scalding, water. Applying ice to the area and painkillers are also helpful to ease the pain and luckily the injury does not lead to any infection or scarring.

The Common Jellyfish (Brama Komuni) and Sea Anemone (Artikla)

What should I watch out for?

The jellyfish are free swimming organisms, while the sea anemones are sedentary and live on rocky shores in very shallow water. They use tentacles as a defense mechanism, and they possess millions of venom-filled cells on them. These cells are fired as soon as anything touches them. The sea anemones are related to the jellyfish but they have much more, but narrower, tentacles.

Does it hurt?

Jellyfish stings are the most common of injuries and they cause sharp, burning pain at the infected area. This leads to swelling, redness and warmth, and may last up to a week. An itching scab develops after a few days along the scars left by the tentacles but scratching of the scab should be avoided, as this leads to a permanent scar.

How should the injury be treated?

The best known treatment is the application of vinegar onto the affected area, as its acidic pH is said to neutralize the alkaline nature of the venom. Immersing the area in hot water, the use of insect bite anesthetic sprays, and the application of cold compresses to the area are also recommended.

The Lesser Weever (Sawt), and the Greater Weever (Tracna)

What should I watch out for?

They are both thin-bodied fish, which live on sandy bottoms and cause serious venomous injuries. The lesser weever is smaller and lives in shallower waters, while the greater weever lives in deeper waters down to 100 meters in depth.

Does it hurt?

Injury normally occurs when the fish is caught and mishandled, or else when bathers step on it while swimming in sandy beaches. After the sharp sting, an intense pain is felt rushing from the site of the sting centrally, often described as going towards the heart. There is an immediate reactive inflammatory response with swelling, redness, pain and warmth at the site of the sting. The venom remains active, even if the fish has been dead for long, therefore if caught and retained, the spines on the back and side of head should be immediately cut off carefully and thrown away.

How should the injury be treated?

It’s best to bleed the site in order to minimize the spread of the venom and pain could be eased by immersing the area in hot water. Medical care should be sought immediately for pain relief and anti-venom treatment. Tetanus vaccination should be given and antibiotics started, if signs of infection begins.

The Scorpion Fish (Skorfna)

What should I watch out for?

They’re bottom dwelling fish which live in rocky bottoms and have venomous spines on the back and sides of the gills. They have a deeper body with a large head and are masters of camouflage.

Does it hurt?

Injury occurs when the fish is caught and mishandled and the venom remains active, even if the fish is dead or frozen. The venom causes intense pain and inflammation at the site. Cutting off the dangerous spines immediately, when the fish is dead is recommended.

How should the injury be treated?

Immerse the area in hot water for about fifteen minutes and if the pain persists, seek medical attention.

The Common Stingray (Boll Komuni), and Eagle Ray (Ajkla, Ħammiema Komuni)

What should I watch out for?

The rays are flat fish with an elongated narrow tail, which live on the bottom of the seabed. They possess sharp, pointed venomous barbs at the tail, which are used in self-defence.

Does it hurt?

When disturbed, they will twist and swirl their tail frantically in an effort to inflict the barb into the aggressor. The barbs contain a potent venom and are so sharp they they’re able to tear skin and soft tissues easily. The eagle ray also uses its long, narrow tail as a whip, literally whipping its offender. Once the barb penetrates the skin, intense pain follows which might lead to hyperventilation, loss of consciousness and rarely fatality. Extensive inflammation develops at the site which may even lead to areas of gangrene and possibly infections.

How should the injury be treated?

Once again the application of heat is the best treatment, but it may prove tricky to apply because the wound may be quite deep and jagged. The wound should be thoroughly cleaned and cared for, and pain killers are suggested in order to minimize the pain. Medical attention should be sought if the pain persists.

Creatures causing injuries through spines, bites and electricity

These are sea creatures that do not possess any venom but cause injuries through bites, spines and electricity. The worse injuries in this category are those of bites, especially in the case of fish that possess strong jaws capable of inflicting serious injuries which are sometimes fatal. These types of injuries are luckily uncommon, and fatalities very exceptional.

Sea urchins (Rizza)

What should I watch out for?

They are bottom dwellers, living in shallow waters in rocky areas which feed on algae which they scrape off the rocks. Their shell consists of very sharp spines that easily penetrate the skin and break off.

Does it hurt?

Injury occurs when they are either stepped upon or when they are collected. Often multiple spines are present in the same area but they do not penetrate deeper than the epidermis. The common Mediterranean Sea urchin does not possess any venom in its spines; thus, injury is often of a minor nature.

How should the injury be treated?

Embedded spines can either be removed immediately, after a few days, or left to come out spontaneously. Any large projecting spines should be carefully removed with tweezers. Removing them immediately is often time consuming, painful and may cause more trauma to the site. The area should be immersed in hot water and then the skin over the spine is to be broken using a needle and applied pressure to, to be easily removed. Sometimes the area can become infected, with pain, swelling and redness developing around the area.

Cocks: Shark family, Conger Eel and Barracuda

There are various sea creatures that defend themselves by biting any organism that poses a threat to them. Members of the shark family all possess sharp teeth capable of ripping off flesh if the occasion arises. The number of the larger and most dangerous sharks has declined drastically and there have been al been 22 recorded unprovoked white shark attacks in the Mediterranean since 1907. Two of these occurred in the Maltese territorial waters, the most recent in 1956.

The Conger Eel (Gringu)

Another organism, the conger eel (gringu) possesses powerful jaws with tiny teeth capable of inflicting serious injuries. This is an eel which inhabits crevices and holes during the day and scavenges for food at night. Although the bite does not rip off flesh, damage is done due to the pressure exerted and the powerful wriggling of the fish.

The Barracuda (Lizz)

The barracuda (lizz) possesses a large mouth and powerful jaws lined with strong pointed teeth with which it catches its prey. This fish emits a slimy fluid from its body, which together with its streamlined body and violent wriggling action, might lead to bites. If caught, avoid inserting the fingers in the fish’s mouth and use pliers to remove the hook. Treatment of bites consists of cleaning the area and wound well, and in case of any complicated infection, medical attention should be sought.

The Moray Eel (Morina)

What should I watch out for?

More common bites and possibly severe bites are inflicted by these fish, which live in crevices and holes on rocky sea beds. The moray eel has a small pointed head with a thicker body which is not covered by scales, rendering it very slippery and therefore tricky to handle. It has powerful jaws lined with razor-sharp teeth.

Does it hurt?

The moray eel will fight with all its strength to free itself once caught. It will twist and twirl its powerful body and snap at anything within reach of its mighty teeth, even itself. When it bites, the sharpness of its teeth together with the twisting movement of its body will rip off chunks of flesh in a split second.

Since this fish is a scavenger, its teeth are full of bacteria and might give rise to nasty infections. An intense stinging pain at the site of the injury is expected.

How should injury be treated?

Emergency treatment consists of stopping the bleeding and cleaning the area well, and secondary care might be necessary for more extensive bites. The wound should be thoroughly cleaned and stitching might be necessary under anesthesia. Seeking medical attention is highly recommended.

The Electric Ray (Haddiela komuni)

What should I watch out for?

They are rays which live on the bottom of the sea, round in shape and with a short tail. This creature is capable of producing an electric current; which it discharges, either to capture its prey or in self-defence. It is a very potent discharge of about 220 volts which can be repeated several times in rapid succession, even eight to 10 times.

Does it hurt?

Despite the high voltage that this fish can discharge, the current has very low amperage. This does not lead to any injury. Most commonly these fish are caught through spear fishing and discharge their electricity on being handled. Rarely, they can frighten bathers who accidentally step on them on shallow sandy beaches.

How should the injury be treated?

No treatment is needed as they do not cause any persistent injury.

Compiled by Luke Vella





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