The Portugese man o' war, named after its likeness to an 18th century Portugese war ship's sail, is actually a siphonophore, a relaxing-sounding word that means this gas-filled bag o' terror isn't a single multicellular organism floating atop the sea, but a real life colony of zooids, animals that all have different functions and work together as a group to survive. Pretty crazy.
Each Portuguese man o' war is actually a colony of several small individual organisms that each have a specialized job and are so closely intertwined that they cannot survive alone. pic.twitter.com/Y0rvnsxnLW— Oceana (@Oceana) February 27, 2018
The man o' war's tentacles are so densely blue they could be mistaken for blue raspberry gummy candy, but you definitely don't want to touch them. These strands can grow up to 100 feet long and are used to trap and paralyze fish, and occasionally (and painfully) brush against the random human swimmer's leg or arm, which stings like a mother. They can also sting you when they've washed ashore and died.
My dad lives in Satellite Beach, just south of Cape Canaveral, Florida, and growing up, my cousins and I used to pop them every summer with sticks and rocks, until one sent venom shooting up toward my face and eye as it exploded hard. Four hours of crying ensued. As a teen, one brushed against me in the water while I was surfing and I cursed like a sailor all the way to shore, where some other surfers instructed me to pee on it. Did I listen? Of course I did. I also rubbed sand into it, iced it, and after the stings welled up into a lash of zit-sized blisters for three weeks time, stared at it forlornly, wondering when the wound would go away. It did eventually, but I still have a speckled scar across my right calf. The reason the sting welts up into little dots has to do with the tiny pods of venomous barbs, nematocysts, that cover the man o' war's tentacles. Yes, this animal has its own pain-inducing liqui-gel capsules.
I was visiting my family in Satellite Beach just last weekend, when I spotted dozens of giant man o' wars all over the beach in Florida, their long tentacles stretching out toward the water like trip lines. I was intrigued to hear that they're also in the Gulf of Mexico, washed up right now on Galveston's beaches. But that makes since. They've also been spotted in Pensacola Beach and in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
In Cape Canaveral, there have also been rare sightings of something called the blue dragon sea slug, or glaucus atlanticus, which sounds like a hoax, but is totally real. The inch long blue nudibranch has a baby-alien-meets-tie-dye-dreamcatcher sort of look and is venomous as all get out. Apparently, it can feed on man o' war because it's immune to the venom. Not only that, the slug can then store the dead man o' war's venom to use as its own. The blue slug's sting can actually be dangerous to humans, but the chances of spotting one on the beach are slim.
One more thing about all that venom: The Houston Chronicle reports that urinating on a man o' war sting or rubbing sand and seawater into it—as many believe will get the stingers out— does not, in fact, work. You're supposed to just pour vinegar on it and sit in hot water for 45 minutes, which sounds like Jacuzzi time will be in order. Better just throw in a margarita for the pain while you're at it, and salute the existence of one of our oceans' coolest animals.