Friday 23 August 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'Stung in the head by a lion's mane'

The Lion’s Mane is the largest known species of jellyfish in the world
The Lion’s Mane is the largest known species of jellyfish in the world
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

I'm such a wuss. I got in the sea the other day, and one of the regulars was beckoning me over urgently, clearly to tell me something she didn't want to say out loud. Uh oh. When someone beckons you in the water, you obviously can't just zip over to them. It takes a while as you paddle over in slow motion, both of you kind of looking at each other expectantly.

As I had feared, it was about jellyfish. A few big ones had been seen at a particular spot, 'over there'. So we went in the other direction. There seems to be some kind of general agreement/delusion that jellyfish don't move. If there's a few over there, then we're fine over here. It's not helpful to think about the fact that they presumably were somewhere else before they got over there, and that they could end up over here. Never mind the fact that if there are one or two around there are likely to be more. They are generally sociable creatures, though you will get the odd loner. Anyway we proceeded on down, in our delusion, heading in the opposite direction to what we had decided was the only jellyfish in the Irish Sea.

But I couldn't get into it. Swimming involves a certain leap of faith. In this country, you usually can't see beyond your nose and every second or so you stretch your arm out into the unknown and plunge your hand into the water, or into a jellyfish. If you are lucky you will see a jellyfish first, if not you will just feel him. Given the fact that it is hard to see, once you have jellyfish in your head, you will start to think that everything you half see is a jellyfish. There are the shadows you cast yourself, the disturbance in the water caused by your hands, which can look spherical, bits of seaweed, the light catching the water. It can be anything, any sudden movement or change in visuals can cause the heart to quicken. I went up and down within a 100m stretch that we had ascertained on our first swim down seemed to be jellyfish free. More delusion. We hadn't seen one in this stretch, but you don't see one until you see it, or feel it. It could be there. Hanging there like the living dead. I finished up quickly and got out. There was no pleasure in it for me. I looked at the other deluded fools, still swimming about. And I both envied them and pitied them.

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The fear of jellyfish is actually much more painful than the actual jellyfish. I have been stung a few times, by your regular jellyfish, and to be honest, it's no worse than grazing your hand off nettles. A bit of piss and vinegar and an antihistamine and you'll forget it quickly enough. And you'd think that would have cured me. But no. Still I allow the fear of something that hardly ever happens and isn't that bad when it does happen get to me. It's a metaphor for life really, isn't it?

I think my problem now is that we have created the bogeyman that is the lion's mane jellyfish. I have basically got it into my head that if a lion's mane stings you, you end up having some kind of seizure and possibly a heart attack - in the water. Not true, though some people seem to have a pretty bad reaction to it and require medical attention. But still, it's that fear of the unknown. I possibly need to expose myself deliberately to a lion's mane in order to inoculate myself against the fear.

I wasn't letting a jellyfish ruin my summer. I got back on the horse the next day and headed out. Initially, I was a bit concerned not to see anyone in the sea. But then, there she was, my friend from the day before, getting dressed after her swim. All clear, she assured me. No jellyfish. So I took this new delusion, that there was no jellyfish, anywhere, and off I went, plunging my hands into the unknown, feeling like a king.

It's true what a Channel swimmer told me once. She had encountered all kinds of monsters in the sea. But she told me the real monsters are in your head.

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