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Venomous stingers could trigger massive change across Aussie beaches

Box jellyfish are just one of the venomous creatures that could head south.

Box jellyfish, one of the Top End’s most deadly creatures could one day be swimming further south as climate change increases ocean temperatures and alters currents.

During the Sydney summer, budgie smugglers remain popular and bikinis are becoming more revealing, but if the stingers were to find their way down south their presence could force a change.

The current Northern Territory advice for avoiding the deadly creatures is to either avoid the water or cover up: "The more skin you cover, the greater the protection," it says. "Special stinger suits are also available for those who do coastal water activities."

A woman and surfers on a Sydney beach. Inset - box jellyfish stings on skin.
Sydneysiders may once day be threatened by box jellyfish stings if waters continue to warm. Source: Getty

In February, territory authorities warned the public it is “stinger season” and to be on the lookout for “extremely dangerous” jellyfish species which can kill humans in under five minutes.

Since 1975, there have been 14 confirmed box jellyfish deaths in territory waters — all were children as they are particularly vulnerable because of their smaller size.

Sydney's marine life changing as waters warm

Christine Evans, an aquarist at Sea Life aquarium in Melbourne said there’s a “high chance” box jellyfish will migrate into new waters if they continue to warm. “They’re definitely going to keep moving,” she said. “They’re very fast swimmers so during the summer months they can swim far.”

How far south they move depends on how warm waters become. “If the temperatures get high enough… there’s a chance (box jellyfish) will reach Sydney,” Ms Evans said.

Two images of a man stung by blue dragons.
Blue dragons can inject stings many times worse than blue bottles. Source: The Dragon Hunter/TikTok

Changes have already been observed in Queensland and NSW waters. Unprecedented numbers of venomous blue dragon sea slugs have been observed on the Gold Coast, Bondi Beach, Kurnell and Newcastle.

In January, University of the Sunshine Coast's Professor David Schoeman, told Yahoo News Australia tropical and subtropical fish are increasing in abundance and persisting throughout colder months in Sydney Harbour’s kelp beds. “I’ve dived there and it’s a really striking and unsettling experience,” he said.

Box jellyfish facts:

  • The Australian box jellyfish is the world’s most venomous marine creature

  • Box jellyfish mostly hunt small fish and invertebrates

  • Symptoms from stings include anxiety, vomiting, pain, difficulty breathing

Box jellyfish are very common during summer around the Top End, and generally congregate around shallow waters in the Northern Territory, Queensland and Indonesia.

A swimmer in the background and a box jellyfish close to the camera swimming.
Box jellyfish can sometimes be hard to spot in the ocean. Source: Getty

Despite reaching over three metres in length, many of the 50 box jellyfish species can be difficult to see, because they are translucent. Unlike most jellyfish, they are able to swim towards prey which they navigate towards using their 24 eyes.

“Sometimes when they can’t avoid an object, which may be a person, they’ll brush their tentacles against it,” she said. “Jellyfish have hundreds of stinger cells on their tenticles, which are pretty much tiny darts filled with venom, and as soon as they come in contact with skin, they’ll push in their stinger cells.”

Anyone who is stung by a box jellyfish should get out of the water and seek immediate treatment by finding a lifeguard and calling Triple-0. The Northern Territory government warns fresh water should not be put on stings, but vinegar can be used.

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