Swimmers in far north Queensland have long lived with the threat of irukandji and box jellyfish stings, but the dangerous marine creatures could soon be headed further south.
This season about 50 people in Queensland have been hospitalised after being stung in waters from the far north to the central coast, and both potential killers close affected beaches for six months each year.
Scientist Jamie Seymour has been researching the deadly creatures for nearly 20 years and says global warming means the irukandji will eventually end up as far south as the Gold Coast.
His assertion is a worrying prospect for tourism operators along the Sunshine and Gold coasts.
Dr Seymour, an associate professor at James Cook University in Cairns, says global warming has already extended the irukandji’s habitat.
“For irukandji, 30 or 40 years ago the length of the season was about a month to a month-and-a-half,” he said.
“The length of the season now is about five-and-a-half to six months. It’s increasing as water temperatures go up.
“The other thing we’re seeing is they’re getting further and further south. Give it time, it’ll be a problem down in Surfers Paradise.
“It’s just going to take a little bit of time, an increase in water temperatures, then it’s all going to hit the fan.”
He says the Sunshine Coast could have a jellyfish problem in just five years.
“You put one degree, half a degree rise in sea water temperature, they’ll be there no doubt about it at all,” Dr Seymour said.
“I don’t think you’ll see big box jellyfish down there because it’s a completely different way of life, and they need coral reef to stop the waves and things.
“Irukandji, I can see it happening, and it’ll happen in my lifetime.”
Tourism Sunshine Coast chief executive Russell Mason says the threat of irukandji stings could damage the industry.
“The whole concept of global warming is going to affect tourism across the globe,” Mr Mason said.
“The government – state, federal and local – all need to be really aware that tourism is a critical component of the Australian economy, and in places like the Sunshine Coast it is the biggest driver of our economy.
“Any threat to that needs to be managed very carefully.”
Mr Mason says quelling public panic will be the biggest challenge for the industry.
“It’s a bit like shark attacks in the fact that people don’t know a lot about the irukandji at the moment, and because people don’t know about them they get very worried,” he said.
“Fortunately James Cook University is doing a lot of research in this area and they’ll be able to tell us how to deal with the irukandji problem.
“Probably more importantly, they’ll tell us where the irukandji are likely to turn up and that way we can monitor those areas very closely.”
The race is on for Dr Seymour to come up with more answers about the mysterious marine killer.
“You come to north Queensland and when you want to swim on the beach everybody’s crammed into these little stinger nets,” he said.
“And I’ve got this vision of being able to see people all the way down the beach enjoying themselves.
“What we need to be able to do is get a handle on the jellyfish, and the only way we can do that is [work out] how they actually operate, what their biology is, and go from there.
“I liken it to what happens with snakes. Twenty or 30 years ago, certainly when I was a kid, if there was a snake in the backyard your dad would go down with a 12-gauge (gun) and blow its head off.
“Do we do that with snakes now? No we don’t.
“Now we understand what snakes do. We have anti-venoms. We know how to treat snake bites.
“People don’t really worry that much. Yes, we know they’re there but it doesn’t change the way we act.
“If we can work out what the jellyfish are doing and where they are and under what circumstances, then we make it safer for the average punter down on the beach.”