`Tis the Season for Pica Pica

You've just finished an excellent day of diving and you're making the ascent to the surface. All of a sudden you see a cloud of tiny organisms above you. Before you know it, they surround you. That's when you feel it. "Its feels like hundreds of mosquitoes biting you all over your body," explains a local diver. It's not until you return to the boat that you notice the chicken pox type rash covering your body. You've just experienced what is locally known as Pica Pica.

Those of you who have had the misfortune to experience Pica Pica are probably aware that the culprits are jellyfish, specifically the spherical thimble jellyfish of the Caribbean. When conditions are right, as they are every year in the spring, millions of unseen juvenile jellyfish grow rapidly, and suddenly there is a "bloom" (lots of jellyfish). Most of the 200 different species found throughout the world's oceans and seas develop in four distinct stages that include a larval stage, polyp stage, ephyrae stage, and medusa

Reef Brief is a weekly column published in the San Pedro Sun
stage. An adult female jellyfish produces eggs and holds them in her mouth. Then, the male jellyfish releases sperm into the water, allowing the female to use her oral arms and tentacles to bring in the sperm and fertilize her eggs. The eggs stay on the jellyfish's oral arms and grow into round, flat larvae. It is during the medusa stage that problems arise for divers/snorkelers. The medusa bear nematocysts, poisonous microscopic structures that are activated by physical contact. When the nematocysts come into contact with a human being, they are discharged and release a toxin into the skin. Generally, the toxin is not lethal and causes only itching and skin irritation.

We are currently in the midst of Pica Pica season, so snorkelers and divers beware. There are some ways to avoid Pica Pica; some divers lather themselves (even inside their wetsuits) with sunscreen, thick oil, or Vaseline, preventing the nematocysts from permeating the skin. However, if you are one of the unlucky ones who come into contact with Pica Pica, some suggest using calamine lotion to relieve the itch. Ultimately, Pica Pica is a small price to pay for being graced by the amazing environment of Belize.

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