Few things are more alien yet more comprehensible than tentacles. They are simple, fluid, and mysterious. All of the scariest sea and space monsters are covered in them and wield them with terrifying and strategic force. The tentacle possesses an eerie autonomy, each limb operating independently to protect the entire self. Tentacles wrap, rip, and rend. Some of the oldest creatures on the planet possess them and have evolved some of the world's most complex nervous systems to control a dozen deft and delicate appendages.
I have not had good experiences with tentacles. Growing up with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea I have always been wary of tentacled creatures that lurk in the deep. However, all the apprehensions and lessons Captain Nemo taught me were suddenly lost one afternoon in the brilliant and iridescent turquoise shimmer of a Portuguese Man o' War.
I was five years old and visiting my grandmother on Marco Island, Florida. As a natural born collector, I loved scouring the Gulf Coast beach, a veritable treasure trove of knick-knacks, detritus, and baubles for a five year old. I often meandered down the beach, away from my parents' rainbow umbrella, and would gathered shells, stones, and sea glass in a green plastic pail, dropping each trinket in with a satisfying clack.
And so, it was with pail in hand, and hundreds of yards between me and my parents, that I came across the Man 'o War, Physalia phsalis, a siphonophore, technically not a jellyfish but a symbiotic colony of polyps. The creature, with its helmet shaped air bladder and silly-string tentacles, bobbed in the shallows, slowly being pushed to its own death by the lapping waves on the sandy shore. With pail still clutched in one hand, I splashed over to my most recent nautical discovery. In the bright Floridian sun I bent down and moved to scoop up the coruscating creature with my free hand and just as I made contact another wave came lapping up on shore and pushed the gelatinous polyp colony up against the entire right side of my body.
The pain was instant and excruciating. I recoiled, shrieking in agony, but it was too late. The Man o' War's tentacles and body had slapped up against my body, sinking poison into my leg, chest, and arm. As I writhed and wailed in the sand, my pail of treasures left in the ocean, a group of concerned septuagenarian Marco Islanders gathered around me, baffled and worried about the convulsing youth before them. At some point soon thereafter I remember my father's arms scooping me up and conveying me to the nearest lifeguard hut. All I recall from the lifeguards was that their floor was far less soothing to writhe on that the hot sand of the beach. Nearly blacking out from pain, I next returned to consciousness in the emergency room. While it is generally known that vinegar (and, in a pinch, urine) denatures many aquatic venoms, the sure fire way to remove the stingers of many seafaring creatures is a razor. And so, at the tender age of five, I found my vinegar doused and hairless body being shaved to pull out the poison-filled nematocysts still injecting toxins into my system.
The rest of the story becomes hazy as the pain wore off and the Benadryl kicked in. I remember "napping" when we got home for many hours. When I awoke I was rewarded for my "bravery" that day with a dinner at the local Chinese restaurant, as Chinese food was, and still is, my favorite type of cuisine. And so, one Man o' War and several dumplings later, I considered the day a net gain.
To this day tentacles terrify and fascinate me. My curiosity has moved up the evolutionary ladder to starfish, octopuses, and the ever elusive squid. These alien creatures of the deep with their uniquely powerful and foreign appendages, have existed for millennia virtually unchanged. I'd love to go to the depths and visit them, hopefully with less catastrophic consequences than my Man o' War encounter.
(photo courtesy of Rory Gawler, taken of me at the Georgia Aquarium, 4.1.07)