Australian Marine Stinger Advisory Services














For many years people in southeast Queensland and New South Wales have been asking the question, "will dangerous box jellyfish and Irukandjis migrate south with climate change?" There are other possible scenarios, including that the species already there might be triggered to be more potent.

On 31 December 2014, three people were stung at Wellington Point in Moreton Bay: a young child and male and female adults. All three people became ill from their stings and suffered what is commonly called "Irukandji Syndrome".

Stinging cells collected from one of the stings were identified microscopically by experts and are a match with Morbakka, a type of Irukandji jellyfish native to the region.

Q1. Do dangerous jellyfish occur in Moreton Bay?

A1. The species Morbakka fenneri is native to Moreton Bay (it's name, Morbakka, is a stylized word meaning "Moreton Bay Carybdeid", with Carybdeida being the classification order to which it belongs). Morbakka is known to cause Irukandji syndrome.

The current incident is one of nine known "higher latitude" events involving life-threatening stings, Irukandji sting clusters, and unexpected species occurrences, together suggesting that Southeast Queensland may not be as "stinger-safe" as is widely assumed. Nine can hardly be considered an epidemic, but it does suggest the potential that additional incidents may occur. It also highlights how little we know about the stinger risk to SE QLD, and the urgent need for research into this area.

Q2. What is Irukandji syndrome?

A2. Irukandji syndrome is a constellation of systemic symptoms caused by a sting from an Irukandji jellyfish. At least 16 species are known to cause it. Symptoms include severe lower back pain, nausea and vomiting, difficulty breathing, profuse sweating, severe cramps and spasms, and a feeling of impending doom. Some species also cause severe hypertension (high blood pressure). Irukandji syndrome can be fatal, but generally is not. Hospitals throughout tropical and subtropical Australia have good evidence-based protocols for managing Irukandji syndrome, and most people stung make a full recovery.

Q3. Is Morbakka lethal?

A3. No fatalities from Morbakka are known. Irukandji syndrome from Morbakka is typically fairly mild. However, one case a few years back required life support (but subsequently recovered well). The cluster of stings on New Years Eve 2014 resulted in severe illness, but all three people are expected to make a full recovery. Employing the precautionary principle would be prudent, wherein Morbakka should be considered potentially life threatening.

Q4. Where does Morbakka live?

A4. Very little is known about Morbakka. It was formally named and classified in 2008, although it had been known about since the 1980s. It has been confirmed from Port Douglas in Far North Queensland to Sydney in New South Wales. Its distribution may well extend beyond those two points. It is most frequently found at Redcliffe in Moreton Bay, although it has often been observed at Stradbroke Island and Bribie Island, as well as Mackay to the North and the Gold Coast to the south.

Q5. What does Morbakka eat?

A5. The ecology of Morbakka has not yet been studied. However, it is likely that, like its other relatives, Morbakka eats plankton when it is young and small, and as it grows, it shifts to eating higher energy prey like fish and prawns.

Q6. How common is Morbakka?

A6. Morbakka is not what would be called "common", but rather, "regular". Perhaps there are one to two handfuls of sightings a year, and a similar number of stings. And the vast majority of those are minor. When you consider how many people swim in Southeast QLD each year, you can get a good feel for how uncommon Morbakka really is.

Q7. How can I be safe?

A7. There's a number of things that can be done to tilt the odds in your favour of having a good, fun, safe time at the beach without a sting incident. Swim between the red and yellow flags if present, and check with the lifeguards to see if there have been any stings lately. Wear protective clothing such as a full body lycra suit, sun-suit, dive skin, rashie, or pantyhose -- these will reduce your likelihood of being stung by 75%, and they give great sun protection as well. Carry a bottle of vinegar in the boat or in the boot of the car (white or brown are both effective) -- that way, you'll have it handy to use if you get stung. If you see a Morbakka or are stung, get out of the water and alert others who may be in the water. Also if you wish to report a sting or sighting of Morbakka, you could ring your local Council, the Queensland Museum in Brisbane, or Underwater World on the Sunshine Coast.

Q8. What does vinegar do?

A8. Contrary to common expectation, vinegar does not relieve pain. However, it does something much better: it may save your life. Vinegar neutralises the discharge mechanism of stinging cells, so that they are instantly and permanently unable to discharge. It doesn't work for every species of jellyfish, but it does work for every species f box jellyfish and Irukandji that have been tested, and is believed to work for all of them. How much vinegar? Enough to saturate the sting. How long does it take? Instantly. Will it work in a spray or mist bottle? Yes, as long as it saturates the sting site.

Q9. Is Morbakka getting worse with Climate Change?

A9. There has been a lot of focus on jellyfish moving south with climate change (but very little evidence of it actually happening). It is true that it may happen, but it takes a long time for an entire habitat to relocate to support a species' survival. However, a more timely risk is of species like Morbakka becoming more virulent or more abundant with warmer water. There is precedent with this happening with other, distantly related species; however, there is no evidence at this point to confirm or deny that this is happening or may happen to Morbakka. Answering this question will require further research.

Q10. What should I do if stung by Morbakka?

A10. Morbakka should be treated following the Irukandji first aid guidelines recommended by the Australian Resuscitation Council, the authoritative body in Australia. In summary, the treatment priorities are:

1. Call for help: 000 or lifeguard

2. Treat the patient: CPR if necessary

3. Treat the sting: flood with vinegar

4. Seek medical help if appropriate

More information about Morbakka can be found at the following places:

More information on marine stingers, and other marine life, is available from the Queensland Museum’s free “Coastal Life of SE Queensland” App. Click here.

The Queensland Museum also has a book for sale (Wild Guide to Moreton Bay and Adjacent Coasts) that covers what is in the app, plus a lot more. Click here.

The original description of Morbakka can be found free of charge on the website for the Queensland Museum Memoirs. Click here.


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Copyright © 2011 Australian Marine Stinger Advisory Services. All rights reserved. Page modified 7 January, 2015 0:06