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Sea Lice… Bite

By Dr Rob Brander on March 2, 2011 in Other

One of the things I love most about Sydney beaches is that there are no crabs. I hate crabs. On a lot of beaches around the world, they lie in the sand, waiting for an innocent and unsuspecting foot or toe to clamp onto. Quite frankly, it’s terrifying. So when I arrived in Sydney I thought I was in heaven: no crabs. Unfortunately I then started hearing about these things in the water called ‘sea lice’, but didn’t pay much attention until one day I was in the water at Tamarama and felt the distinct sensation that I was being bitten all over. I came out and mentioned this to one of the local groms at the time, ‘Dirty Kev’, who told me it was sea lice and that whatever I did, not to scratch the bites.

At the time it was hard to take Kev seriously as only a few days before I’d seen him run naked across the beach and into the water with a streamer of toilet paper on fire hanging out of his bum* during the finals of the old twilight Bondi Nude Surfing competition. Just after that he decided to ‘spit the winkle’** all over Jason Donovan’s shoes on the victory platform before he was taken to hospital.

So I scratched the bites. It was the worst thing I could have done. In fact, I’m scratching as I write this because when all those blue bottles came in last month, so did a plague of sea lice and I got hammered.

So what are these mysterious sea lice? I always thought they were just broken up little bits of jellyfish that still packed a sting. Then I heard that they were ‘pelican lice’, which I’m sure also bite but there’s not a lot of pelicans living along Sydney’s beaches. It turns out they are actually tiny little jellyfish larvae that just so happen to have the same stinging cells as an adult jellyfish, but obviously affect a smaller area of skin.

Sea lice tend to bite areas where they get trapped and squeezed, like in your cossies and under your armpits. Bad luck if you’re a hairy guy. Often people wearing t-shirts in the water get hit pretty hard. If you do feel yourself being nibbled in the water, have a good shower and rinse off as soon as possible when you get out of the water. Sea lice bites generally have a delayed reaction and can last a long time. The weird thing is that some people (like me) seem to more affected than others. Treat them the same way you would bluebottle stings or severe insect bites, but whatever you do, don’t scratch them as this will make them worse and the bites will last longer. The thing is, in the short term scratching feels so good!

Dr Rip’s Essential Beach Book; everything you wanted to know about surf, sand and rips’ is available in all good bookstores and on www.scienceofthesurf.com.

* Kev is now a successful millionaire entrepreneur while I still rent.

**This is a skilled act, sometimes performed by surfers, that is best left to a Google search to explain.