27th August: Fleshwick to Niarbyl / a swim coaching session with a difference and the case of the Lion’s Mane

A quick reminder that via this swim, I’m raising money to support the excellent marine conservation work of the Manx Wildlife Trust and Blue Marine Foundation via this Justgiving page

Tweeting from @michaelpmdavis

Yesterday’s leg from Fleshwick Bay up to Niarbyl was my best ever swim!

I guess that was always on the cards. It was a gorgeous, golden, late afternoon and even in worse weather, I find this stretch of coast from the Sound up to Niarbyl, with its stunning deck of heather covered headlands diving to their final craggy descent into the ocean absolutely lovely. But that reflects the perspective of a walker and the seascape was entirely new to me.

White beach, just south of Niarbyl

Of course, I found that, below the waves, it’s very different. And yet not totally different. For much of this stretch the land continues to fall away sharply under the water. The drama of the heather and the crags is not exactly mirrored, but certainly matched, by the rolling boulders plumed with almost stands of palm tree-like kelp, thickets of wrack and a vigorously growing fern-like plant I haven’t yet identified. These form dens and tunnels for a group of grey seals that emerged to escort me almost as far as the White Beach, just south of Niarbyl.

A couple of these seals were the cream with chocolate sprinkles juveniles of the kind I’ve met before. Like the huggy seal near the Point of Ayre, one of them found it very amusing to swim upside down just beneath me. Some of the others were larger and darker. I was about to write “and less playful” but that wouldn’t really be true. There was no clasping or toe chewing yesterday but I did get a series of friendly nuzzles on my feet from one of the larger seals. This felt a bit like being rubbed by a very large cat.

Not many people would usually be attracted to my feet and I gave a bit of thought, as I was swimming yesterday, to their curious appeal for the local seal population. My best guess is informed by reflections on my coaching sessions with Dan and Keeley at Swimfortri, who have been consistently underwhelmed by the feeble state of my leg kick. My laziness in this regard is currently exacerbated by the addition of a buoyant wetsuit and the sensory deprivation caused by my increasingly ragged (and nibbled) neoprene socks.

A novel approach to foot massage

Watching the seals swim (and I’ve tried to capture this in some of these video clips), what is most striking is the extraordinary propulsion they derive from a seemingly casual flick of their hind flippers. Perhaps my seal friend yesterday – and the others around the Point of Ayre and Langness – have been motivated primarily by consternation at my desperately poor footwork. They have simply been trying a range of methods of persuading me to raise the tempo a bit.

Cave just north of Fleshwick

If the seals weren’t inspiration enough, I got another masterclass in leg kick from two European shags that I came across diving for fish. I had never seen one, much less two, swimming below the surface, and they moved in a seemingly synchronised manner as though hunting as a pair. I didn’t get more than a couple of seconds to observe what they were doing due to the astounding speed with which they shot across my field of vision and disappeared into the deeper water down to my left.

180 degree view from near White Beach

My less cuddly companions

I have a few times now mentioned jellyfish and posted pictures of them. I haven’t written very much about them but have been stung into action after getting my lips around a forkful of lion’s mane tentacles coming out of the Fleshwick Bay yesterday morning.

Like many swimmers, I am used to the idea of finding jellyfish in the water with me, without being terribly enthusiastic about it. I had a swim last year across a bay in Cornwall that had become a tureen of jellyfish soup. I could feel my hands spooning up the blobs up and one even bounced off my nose. Although I wasn’t stung by them, each brush with the tentacular other triggered a shuddering recoil that almost stopped me in my tracks.

These were crystal jellyfish – until recently a rare visitor to British shores – which look like small translucent flying saucers. Banked in a sprawling flotilla less than a metre below the surface they recalled the scene in any number of off the shelf sci-fi blockbusters in which the fleet of alien invaders masses with attitude on the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Jelly invaders have already achieved more than most terrorist organisations with their shut downs of power stations in UK, U.S., Japan, The Philippines and Sweden. They also succeeded in incapacitating American aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan by gumming up the cooling system for its nuclear reactor. China’s navy is reportedly addressing the threat by developing a special jellyfish mincing machine that presumably turns them into a sort of phlegm.

All this has spurred speculation in some quarters that humanity may soon face a gelatinous apocalypse. Typically, the headlines are hyperbolic, no doubt inflated by the fact that jellyfish interactions tend to come during the summer ‘silly season’, when it’s hard to fill those column inches. But the overall narrative, while exaggerated, may not be entirely misplaced.

Prior to my arrival on the Isle of Man, jellyfish expert Dr Vicky Hobson, of the University of Exeter shared some invaluable insights and gave me some home work to do. I’m now in a position to (rather smugly) recommend the following for anyone who wants to learn more about these fascinating, if hard to love, creatures:

These papers cover different topics but three out of the four look at the global picture. I think I’m on reasonably safe ground in saying that the scientific community is seriously considering the possibility that jellyfish blooms and the spread of invasive jellyfish species outside of their established habitats may be on the rise. The likely causes include ones attributable to mankind: global warming; eutrophication (excess of nutrients); fishing that takes out jellyfish predators; aquaculture; changes in salinity caused by dams and other construction; and accidental introductions of non-native gelatinous species.

Combing through the homespun remedies and the old wives’ tales

Jellyfish can pose a serious problem for swimmers. Mercedes Gleitze was badly stung by bluebottle jellyfish during the first leg of her swim to Robben Island and back in South Africa in 1932. More recently Lewis Pugh was repeatedly stung by compass jellyfish during his English Channel swim and last year Ross Edgley, the first person to swim around Britain, was stung 37 times and swam one stretch with a jelly attached to his face.

Lion’s mane jellyfish near Fleshwick on Monday

During her swim around the Isle of Man last year Anna Carin Nordin was badly stung by a lion’s mane off Langness. Undeterred, she covered the affected area with shaving foam, scraped off the stingers with the edge of a credit card, took some painkillers and carried on swimming.

I asked Vicky Hobson her advice on how you avoid being stung and what to do if you are. Here are some of her top tips:

  • If stung, try and remove the tentacle as quickly as possible. The nematocysts (stingers) are like little coiled up harpoons and when triggered, the harpoon stings you. The stings can be activated even after the tentacles have become separated from the body of the jellyfish.
  • Sometimes only a third of the nematocysts fire initially when they come into contact with the human body. Washing the affected area in fresh water alters the pH value (level of acidity) and could trigger those nematocysts that have not yet fired, thereby making the sting worse. Yes, do add shaving foam to your bag of beach toys. The idea is that, as the foam inflates, it lifts off any residual nematocysts and then you scrape them off with the edge of a credit card.
  • It’s true that, if you think you might come into contact with jellyfish, growing a beard or stubble is a good idea. When tagging barrel jellyfish (yes, you did read that correctly!), Vicky wears a wetsuit, face mask, and takes great care not to touch her face after handling the jellyfish. Nevertheless, she finds she still gets stings around her jaw, the one unprotected area of her face. By contrast, the men she works with are generally a bit stubbly and don’t seem to get stung in this area at all. Aside from stubble, a barrier cream like Vaseline can help prevent stings to the face.
  • Peeing on the stung area: this is an urban myth and doesn’t work! Trying to get someone to pee on you might offer a useful distraction from the pain but would not have any medical benefits.

The mane attraction

The jellyfish that have twice stung me during the swim so far have both been lion’s manes. Angry blood clot-looking beasts that feed on small fish and plankton, the lion’s mane is dripping with exceptionally long tentacles. The largest specimens, found up near the Arctic, can reach up to two metres across. The lion’s mane has distinction of being the world’s longest creature: including tentacles, it can be up to 30 metres long.

The lion’s mane’s other distinction is that it is the only invertebrate to feature as leading protagonist in a Sherlock Holmes mystery. It has to be said that this is not Sherlock Holmes’ most memorable outing. The title – The Lion’s Mane – is a bit of a giveaway as to who the murderer might be. Moreover, the gelatinous villain’s habit of loitering in rock pools awaiting unsuspecting swimmers probably doesn’t correspond to the established scientific literature on the species’ lifecycle and feeding habits. Still, it’s unlikely that many biologists can compete with Arthur Conan Doyle when it comes to a dramatic denouement to their investigations:

“I had reached the deepest and stillest pool when my eyes caught that for which they were searching, and I burst into a shout of triumph. “Cyanea!” I cried. “Cyanea! Behold the Lion’s Mane!”

The strange object I pointed did indeed look like a tangled mass torn from the mane of a lion.It lay upon a rocky shelf some three feet under the water, a curious waving, vibrating, hairy
creature with streaks of silver among its yellow tresses. It pulsated with a slow, heavy dilation and contraction.

“It has done mischief enough. Its day is over!” I cried. “Help me, Stackhurst! Let us end the murderer forever.”

There was a big boulder just above the ledge, and we pushed it until it fell with a tremendous splash into the water. When the ripples had cleared we saw that it had settled upon the ledge below. One flapping edge of yellow membrane showed that our victim was beneath it.

A thick oily scum oozed out from below the stone and stained the water round, rising slowly to the surface.”

Fancy a jellyfish transplant?

Barrel jellyfish that I photographed off Torquay, a month ago. This species of jellyfish is being sized up as a source of collagen to use as filler material in surgery

While seemingly the most common jellyfish found off the Isle of Man at the moment, the lion’s mane is not the only species trawling these waters. According to Vicky Hobson, there are seven or eight types of jellyfish regularly found around the UK and most, although not all, can be found around the Island. On Monday, between The Sound and Fleshwick, I saw my first barrel (or dustbin lid) jellyfish, a bulky, marshmallowy-looking animal that is the subject of much of Vicky’s research.

Despite their appearance, barrel jellyfish are actually quite sturdy, almost grisly. A South Wales-based company called Jellagen is now looking at ways to extract collagen from them to use as filler material in certain kinds of surgery. Lots of cosmetic procedures require this sort of filler and many people don’t want bovine collagen, sometimes for religious reasons, so there is a need to find an alternative. Jellyfish are not very popular creatures so people have relatively few ethical issues with them being used in this way.

Barrel jellyfish (appears following the clip of the seal) just north of The Sound on Monday

Vicky doesn’t think jellyfish used for this purpose should all be taken from sea, though. They are part of the ecosystem and an important source of food for leatherback turtles and also sunfish. Leatherback turtles come from Caribbean and the British Isles are at the northerly extent of their range. They prefer grazing on barrel jellyfish to lion’s mane but they have to eat quite a lot of them to keep the hunger pangs at bay – one barrel jellyfish provides the calorific equivalent of a single digestive biscuit.

What’s next

Tomorrow I’ll post something on my turbulent swim today from Niarbyl up to Peel Castle. I’ll also be looking to do another swim, if the weather allows, perhaps up as far as Glen Moar.

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