SOUTH WALTON — Portuguese man o' war, known for their painful stings and venomous tentacles, are plaguing South Walton waters.
David Vaughan, director of beach safety in South Walton, said dozens of the man o' war — a siphonophores that resembles a jellyfish — have been seen along the beach and close to shore in the Gulf of Mexico.
"We’ve been flying purple flags for just over a week," said Vaughan, referring to the beach flag used to indicate dangerous marine life. "If you see them, don't touch them. We want people to be aware, but we don’t want to create another 'sea lice panic of 2018.'"
The sea lice "panic" started after reports from local beach officials of sea lice along the Emerald Coast went viral. Many tourists were concerned about coming to the area in fear of getting stung by the larvae of the thimble jellyfish.
Vaughan said although the man o' war shouldn't stop visitors from coming to the area, people should just keep an eye out for the small blue and purple balloon-like creatures.
Man o' war are known for having tentacles that can grow an average of 30 feet long. They rely solely on ocean currents and wind to move either underwater or on the surface, Vaughan said.
The man o' war were first spotted to the east in Panama City Beach, but slowly made their way toward Walton County by winds. Beach officials said the creatures were also in Okaloosa County last week, but none have been spotted yet this week.
"The winds have been shifting, so we're seeing them come in the afternoons out of the southwest," he said. "They haven't been consistent, so there isn't a pattern of where they're going."
Vaughan also warned against burying or touching the critters. Contact with the them, even when dead, can still result in a sting.
"The tentacles can be invisible to the naked eye," he said. "So, just avoid them and walk around them. A lot of people like to bury them, but you run the risk of handling them."
If beachgoers are stung, they should avoid using ice, according to Vaughan. Instead, pour hot, fresh water over the sting.
"Get the hottest, fresh water you can stand," Vaughan said. "Moms want to stick ice on it, but it can actually cause the sting to be worse."