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PANAMA CITY BEACH — Dozens of Portuguese man o’ wars washed up along the shoreline at St. Andrews State Park during the Christmas weekend. 

The creatures pack a powerful sting, and beach-goers are warned to stay clear of the potential painful organism. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials advise the man o’ wars should not be picked up as even dead and detached tentacles still can sting. 

Man o’ wars are not uncommon along the Gulf Coast. 

Technically not a jellyfish, the creature actually is a siphonophore, which is a colony of organisms working together as one. Each of the four parts is responsible for a different task, including floating, capturing prey, feeding and reproduction. 

Best known for its vibrant blue tentacles, each strand, which can be up to 100 feet long, contains a venom capable of paralyzing and killing small fish and crustaceans. The sting rarely is deadly to people, but it often causes bright red welts. 

While known for the stingers, the man o’ war is named for its float. On the beach, it looks kind of like a Ziploc bag, but in the water it resembles an 18th-century Portuguese warship under full sail, hence the name. 

The sail, which floats just above the water line, is easily swept away by the winds, so during periods of strong winds it’s not uncommon for the organism, which lacks any other means for propulsion, to wash up on shore. 

“They are common year-round in high salinity offshore waters and may be pushed shoreward by winds and currents,” according to the FWC. 

In the event of a sting, tentacle fragments should be removed and a topical painkiller applied. In some places, vinegar also can be used to treat the sting, although its effectiveness is disputed. 

Have a fish tale? Catch or see something interesting this last week? Send an email to klandeck@pcnh.com or call 522-5114.