Vagabond Tales: Snorkeling with irukandji, one of the deadliest animals on Earth

“This guy over here has been tagged three times mate.”

The dive instructor on our Whitsunday Islands cruise peels off his neoprene gloves and shows us a slight scar located just above the knuckle of his right thumb.

“Luckily every time they got me it was in the hand or the foot”, he claims. “If they’d gotten me on the bloody torso I’d be a gonner.”

As someone who has worked on charter boats for a number of years, I know that telling tall tales to tourists just comes with the job. True story or not, I know that the threat is real nonetheless. A dreamy island chain set at the southern tip of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the Whitsunday Islands from November through April are home to one of the world’s deadliest creatures: the irukandji jellyfish.

Similar to a box jellyfish, the tiny irukandji measure only 2.5 centimeters across and have tentacles that pack more venom than the combined amount of 100 cobras. Although actual irukandji fatalities are rare, one Australian teen actually reported he wishes he were dead during a recent irukandji attack.

For this very reason many towns and resorts on the Queensland coast have massive salt water swimming lagoons or fresh pools which serve as refreshing watering holes (and nighttime love hideouts for inebriated backpackers) during the annual irukandji season.

Yet, for some reason, I decided it was still a good idea to go snorkeling. In the ocean. In the Whitsunday Islands. In the peak of irukandji season.

A bit sketchy? Yes. But is it really that dangerous? Not really. Although the safest way to keep from being stung by a massively poisonous jellyfish is to abstain from the ocean completely, for those still harboring fantasies of gliding above a giant purple clam or catching a rare sighting of a giant Napoleon wrasse, the easiest thing thing to do is to simply don a stinger suit.

Wait. A stinger suit? What’s a stinger suit?Basically, a stinger suit is your worst fashion nightmare on land, and your best possible protection when you’re in the Northern Australia waters. A one piece lycra unitard that’s as sexy as it is form-fitting, a stinger suit essentially covers you from head to toe and prevents any rogue irukandji tentacles from brushing alongside and sending you on an impromptu helicopter ride.

That being said, the only thing more disconcerting than catching a glimpse of yourself in a stinger suit is catching an actual glimpse of an irukandji itself.

As I dove off of the crowded catamaran, snorkel gear in hand, the water was slightly cool for mid-April. After a sun drenched boat ride out to the reef from nearby Airlie Beach, I finally was immersed in the calming silence of the sea. Free diving beneath a grotto of human legs to a more tranquil world of vibrant corals and mutant looking parrotfish, the only sounds were the gentle crackling of reef fish feeding on coral heads and the occasional drone of a distant boat motor shuttling tourists from the beach to the reef and eventually the bar.

For the first time in a while, I finally was alone.

Noticing one of his boat passengers languishing gently in a sand channel between the reef, one of the instructors from the boat dove the four meters down to the sea floor to pay a casual visit to my hidden aquatic chamber.

Not more than two seconds after reaching the bottom, however, his eyes excitedly bulged and appeared to double in size as seen through the fog of his mask. Slowly, he raised a focused finger at something apparently located behind me.

For anyone who hasn’t spent much time underwater, regardless of how comfortable you are in the ocean, you never, ever, want to see someone with wide eyes pointing directly behind you. Music starts playing, drums start thumping, and you can almost feel the teeth sinking into the nape of your neck.

Fully expecting to see a toothy visitor, I instead saw…well…nothing. There was nothing there at all. The instructor was actually just pointing at the open blue.

Then, just as my lungs were starting to yearn for another shot of oxygen, the slightest flicker of motion and a narrowing of his pointing drew my attention to a miniscule speck drifting lazily in the sea.

According to our instructor–who would late re-confirm with me back on board–the drifting life form in front of us was none other than the feared and fabled irukandji, the 100 cobra knockout, and the most remarkably passive predator I had ever seen in my life.

For as surreal an experience as floating amidst the reefs of Australia already is, it’s amplified tenfold by staring directly into the face of a creature the size of your fingernail that could actually kill you right there. Like a mesmerizing orb, for some unknown reason you simply want to reach out and touch it, but the stinger suit says no.

“Captain, you said there was a bar on board right?”

I’d just looked death in it’s microscopic Australian eye, and somehow escaped unscathed. It was time for a drink, a pause, a moment of reflection, and a toast to a gentle reminder that even the smallest of creatures on the planet can still make a world of difference.

Want more stories? Read the rest of the Vagabond Tales here

Stinger suit photo: Flickr; eyeintim