Sunday, July 7, 2013

Don't go in the water

This week’s hot, hazy and humid weather, hovering in the mid-90s, drew beachgoers to Fogland State Beach in Tiverton, R.I., where stiff sea breezes and cooler ocean temperatures provided relief.

These tropical conditions also attracted some unwanted guests to the waters near our summer home.

“God created the great sea monsters,” says the Scripture verse in Genesis; and they invade New England every summer.

On the Fourth of July, a dozen swimmers were stung by Portuguese man-of-wars at nearby Horseneck Beach in Westport, Mass. One of the victims was hospitalized after being stung in the arm, and the others were treated on the beach by lifeguards.

A gelatinous creature, but not a true jellyfish, the Portuguese man-of-war is a fearsome animal that is actually a colony of individuals, including feeding and reproducing organisms.

Its bell is a gas-filled float up to 12-inches in length.

Dangling from the feeding organisms are tentacles that can extend 65 feet into the water, providing a sizeable sting area. Unlike jellyfish, they can deliver a toxic, painful sting, which can be life threatening to humans and deadly to prey.

Every summer in these parts, there are sightings of great white sharks lured by the seal population off Chatham, Mass. Last summer a great white shark bit a swimmer in Truro, and a kayaker was chased by a shark in Orleans.

A 13-foot great white shark also washed ashore in Westport.

Four shark species – the tiger, bull, oceanic whitetip and great white – are most responsible for fatal attacks on humans.

Last year in United States waters, there was one reported fatal shark attack, taking the life of a surfer in California.

The last fatal shark attack in New England waters occurred in 1936, when a 16-year-old swimmer was killed by a great white shark at Hollywood Beach in Buzzards Bay, Mass.

Carnivores at the top of the marine food chain, sharks exhibit great maneuverability in the depths but are different from other fish, since they have no swim bladder and cannot regulate their buoyancy.

Consequently, they have to constantly swim or sink to the bottom. In fact, it is rare to find a shark’s skeleton, since its soft cartilaginous flesh is readily consumed by fish that feed on the ocean floor.

Leaving the summer house, I walk down to the seashore, lured by extreme heat and curiosity. My eyes scan the water line seeking the gelatinous mass of a floating man-of-war or the telltale sign of a great white, the shark’s dorsal fin.

The coast is clear, but despite the heat, I stay out of the water.

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