This week’s essay is brought to you by the letter S – snakes, sharks, spiders, scorpions, stingrays, stonefish and sand flies. Some might dispute the description of the saltwater sand fly or midge as deadly. But itchy bites can sure take the edge off a beach holiday. The odds of being bitten by a sand fly in their territory (saltwater marshes) are probably 2-1, with longer odds for those experiencing extreme reactions (me and She).
Of course there are many other potentially deadly Australian critters, names starting with other letters – blue ringed octopus, crocodiles, dingoes, marine stingers, mosquitoes and so on.
At Cape Hillsborough, North of Mackay, sand flies dominated every casual conversation. The trick is to slather yourself with insect repellent before you go outdoors and avoid being out in the early morning and late afternoon. The other sensible tip (which few people heed when at the beach) is to cover as much skin as possible with long shirts, trousers and socks. Some swear by taking vitamin B or variants but this has not been clinically proven to make you less attractive to midges/sand flies.
When my nephew in New Zealand was first planning to bring his kids over for a tour of the Gold Coast theme parks, he had been watching a National Geographic TV series, Australia’s Deadliest. The weekly tales of snake bites, shark attacks and rogue crocodiles all but put him off. Yes, it is true we have some lethal critters, but the chances of becoming a victim are not high.
A study by the University of Melbourne concludes you are more likely to be killed by being trampled on or thrown from a horse.
While we would not want to diminish the horror of a shark attack, fatalities averaged two per year between 2000 and 2013. The number of crocodile fatalities was lower still – 19 deaths over 13 years. Having said that, if a shark or croc gets you, chances of survival are slim.
Near the end of an amphibious vessel tour at 1770, the skipper encouraged guests to enjoy their stay, but added a warning. Four people had recently been stung by stonefish in the shallows around this estuarine settlement. Stonefish, as the name implies, camouflage themselves in the sand, trying to look like the spiky rocks they so resemble. If you stand on a stonefish, it will inject a barb into your foot causing immediate and dire pain. Stonefish stings are not usually fatal, but the pain is such you may wish you were dead. First aid measures include putting the affected foot in a bucket of warm water, gradually adding hot water until it is as hot as you can stand. This is an interim pain relief measure while you wait for paramedics to arrive and administer heavy duty pain killers. You will probably be taken to hospital and, if necessary, have the barb surgically removed. Some intrepid reporter may well track you down and write a story.
Having taken this information on board, we were cautious when strolling on the Cape Hillsborough beach at low tide. My sister-in- law took pictures of sea creatures around exposed rocks, including today’s photo. We say it may or may not be a blue ringed octopus, as we have sent the photo in for ID and have not yet heard back.
Blue ringed octopus rarely bite people, but if they do, the venom can be fatal. They live in tidal pools, remaining out of sight during the day and hunting by night. As with all small marine critters, best left alone, eh. The more common venomous sea critters in North Queensland, which keep people from swimming between October and May, are marine stingers. All manner of jellyfish live in the warm tropical water, the most venomous being the Australian box jellyfish. If stung, the best medical advice is to pour vinegar on the stings and carefully remove tentacles (this will stop more stinging but not the pain). Call 000.
As for snakes, I can identify tree snakes, pythons and Red Belly Blacks. The latter are venomous but shy and will rapidly retreat if you leave them room. Not so the Eastern Brown, which will look for an excuse to attack. If you are out bush walking in Australia and spot a snake, stop, then quietly back up. We did this recently on a bush walk in Maleny, when spying two pythons who were either fighting or making baby snakes. Either way, we gave them a wide berth. The Royal Flying Doctor Service says 3,000 people were bitten by snakes in 2020. There were 550 hospitalisations and two people died.
Not to mention funnel web spiders
We were planting a tree down the bottom of our half acre block and I pulled out the remnants of a tree root. Up jumped this big black hairy spider which reared up on its back legs. (I went inside and made a nice cup of tea and googled funnel web spider). Some members of the funnel web family produce venom which is toxic to humans. There have been no reported deaths since development of antivenene. All the same, if you see a large black hairy spider which appears to be aggressive, move well away.
Snake, shark and croc attacks are page one fodder for media hyperbole, so here’s some perspective to balance the shock horror headlines. A study by Melbourne University found that In the period 2000-2013, 26 people were killed by sharks and 19 by crocodiles. In the same period, 74 Australians died after being thrown or trampled by a horse.
Dr Ronelle Welton, from the University’s Australian Venom Unit, looked at hospital admissions data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, as well as Australian coronial records from 2000 to 2013.
During that period, snakebites killed 27 people, the same number as bee and wasp stings, she told the ABC. Hornets, bees and wasps accounted for 27 deaths, some of them people allergic to stings. I did note that five people died from tick bites, recalling my three-day stay in hospital in 2017 after suffering an allergic reaction.
Australia’s venomous and dangerous animals can and do harm humans, but let’s keep it in perspective; 1,217 Australians died in traffic accidents in the year to March.
Three of the six people in our family convoy experienced extreme reactions to sand fly/midge bites, Our resident nurse inspected our bites and asked if anyone was feeling unwell.
“Irritated, yes. Unwell, no.”
Today we’re arriving on the Atherton Tableland for a family gathering. I expect midge bites will be a topic of conversation:
“Check out Bobby’s welts – poor bastard!”*
*Aussie term of endearment