Dangerous Portuguese Man o’ War washing up on several beaches, including in Alabama

Many beaches from Alabama and Florida to the Carolinas are flying purple beach flags for dangerous marine life in the waters

Dangerous Portuguese Man o’ War washing up on several beaches, including in Alabama
Portuguese Man o' War in Gulf Shores, Alabama in May. (Source: WSFA 12 News)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - If you’ve been down to the beaches along the Gulf of Mexico, you’ve probably noticed purple flags flying high. That’s because of dangerous marine life, including jellyfish and Portuguese Man o’ War.

Both have been problematic for the last few weeks, but pictures of jellyfish and Portuguese Man o’ War are showing up more so on social media recently. That includes the one at the top of this story, which was seen in Gulf Shores.

Information about the Portuguese Man o' War.
Information about the Portuguese Man o' War. (Source: WSFA 12 News)

Jellyfish are no strangers to the beaches along the Gulf, but the uptick in man o’ wars floating in coastal waters and washing up on beaches is a bit more alarming.

That’s because their stings can not only paralyze and kill other marine life, but they are extremely and excruciatingly painful to humans. They are rarely ever deadly to humans, however.

To make things even worse, their tentacles -- which are covered in venom-filled nematocysts -- can grow upwards of 30-100 feet long! That means the largest (or is it longest?) of these man o’ wars can be quite terrifying since the tentacles are hidden under surface.

The NWS in Wilmington, North Carolina, issued an alert for Portuguese Man o' Wars.
The NWS in Wilmington, North Carolina, issued an alert for Portuguese Man o' Wars. (Source: WSFA 12 News)

Not only can their tentacles sting you while they float aimlessly in the water, but a beached man o’ war can sting you. Even a detached or severed man o’ war tentacle can painfully sting a human. Keep this in mind when walking up and down your favorite beaches.

These creatures are dangerous enough and were present in high enough numbers on Thursday to prompt the National Weather Service in Wilmington, North Carolina, to issue a “Beach Hazards Statement” warning of their presence! That is extremely rare.

Portuguese Man o’ War may not show up near your beach of choosing, but if you do see one, the likelihood of seeing others is quite high. That’s because they can travel in groups of 100 or more in warm climates. When they show up on beaches, it’s because of storms, wind and currents pushing them from deep water to shallow water.

Beach flag colors.
Beach flag colors. (Source: WSFA 12 News/Florida Department of Environmental Protection)

So if you venture to the beach this weekend -- or any time in the future -- be sure to check the flags. If you see a purple one flying, know that jellyfish, stingrays, Portuguese Man o’ War, or other dangerous fish are present.

And if you’re wondering why we aren’t including man o’ wars in the same category as jellyfish, it’s because they are not the same!

While they may appear on the surface to look like a jellyfish, they are actually called siphonophores. Siphonophores are an odd group of animals that consist of colonies made up of dozens, hundreds, or more of genetically-identical individual creatures.

In other words, these man o’ wars are not just one creature; they’re dozens or hundreds working together to sustain life.

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