By Nicole Buckler
Let me introduce you to the weever fish. Most people in Ireland haven’t heard of this incredibly crappy little ocean creature. But yesterday, I had a baptism-of-fire introduction to the little shiznit. Why? Because I stood on one of the damn mothertruckers when I was swimming at Brittas Bay in Wicklow.
This fish may look cute and rather harmless, but I kid you not, if you step on this beeotch, you will be at pain level: childbirth. And for all the men who have not yet experienced this level of hell, feel free to find a weever fish and join the world of the all-knowing.
As for my new friend? It was probably a species called the lesser weever. These devil-representatives are known to hang around the Wicklow area. They bury themselves in the sandy parts of the shallow water (except their damn eyeballs and their stupid weapon of mass destruction – their spikes) and wait for their prey (tiny prawns etc) to happen along. Then they eat them and go on with their murderous lives.
Except when people like me come along. I was swimming at very low tide at Brittas Bay when I was unexpectedly forced to enjoy its company. I stood on something that felt like four needles going into my foot. The largest spike actually went through my foot and out the other side, which was a clusterload of fun, obviously.
And if that wasn’t the most excellent wad of good times ever, it then injected me with the motherload of poison. At first, I thought I had stepped on broken glass, I was at pain level: general toe stub. But then the poison kicked in. All I could think of was that I was lucky I hadn’t sat down on it, I had been considering it at the time.
The lesser weever loves the coastlines of the United Kingdom and Ireland. It is found elsewhere in Europe, too. In Italy and France they have specific recipes for cooking the weever. The French one is a bouillabaisse – like a bisque – and the Italians cook it in a pizzaiola sauce.
However, not many people in Ireland have heard of this little piece of scheisse. While a spiky attack is not that common, it’s also not uncommon either. If you check surfing message boards, you will see it as a thread, discussed by surfers from Donegal all the way down to Cork.
When I first stood on this little fark I had never heard of the lesser weever. But if YOU step on one, you’ll learn faster about marine wildlife than you ever thought you could.
At first, many victims believe they have simply scratched themselves on a sharp stone or shell, because it doesn’t hurt THAT much. You can still consider going to the pub after it for a few pints. Initially it is entirely bearable. But alas. Significant pain begins a few minutes after standing on the spikes, as the poison makes its way through your once agreeable body. Common descriptions of the pain range from “extremely painful” to “I have stepped on a sea grenade! Get down mothertruckers! GET DOWN!”
Symptoms can include severe pain, itching, swelling, heat, redness, numbness, tingling, nausea, vomiting, joint aches, headaches, abdominal cramps, lightheadedness, and tremors. Good times.
If you are a little kid, or an older person, or someone with a history of anaphylactic reactions, then you might be in a bit of trouble. Rare but more severe symptoms include abnormal heart rhythms, weakness, shortness of breath, seizures, decreased blood pressure, gangrene, tissue degeneration, and unconsciousness. But let’s not go to soap opera level just yet. Most people, like me, get your standard leg-on-fire response, and seek treatment. And THEN go and get pints.
But here’s the good news. Although extremely unpleasant, weever stings are not generally dangerous and the pain will ease considerably if the wound is treated. Without treatment, however, complete recovery may take a week or more; in a few cases, victims have reported swelling and/or stiffness persisting for months after envenomation. But generally if left untreated the weever jab will give you two weeks of trouble. But even during this you can have pints. So screw that damn fish.
So how is a weever stabbing treated? By putting your foot (or butt) into hot water… as hot as you can stand it. This speeds up the denaturation of the protein-based venom. The hot water melts the proteins in the poison, rendering it useless. This will reduce the pain felt by the victim after a few minutes.
As for me, I hobbled up the beach, and sat in my beach chair and googled. No Irish person I was with had ever heard of spiky things with poison in the sea, regardless of how much I insisted that it actually just happened to me. So I was on my own in the googlesphere. I grew up in Australia so I was suspicious despite my companions telling me I should not be. The Irish people I was with kept saying, “It was just a sharp stone, dial down the drama… Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” (Plus eyeroll.)
But anyone from Australia is very wary of the stonefish, only found in Pacific waters. It can kill strong, robust humans in half an hour flat if the victim reacts badly and is not treated. So I knew that I was in a bit of trouble, but I just wasn’t sure how much. I kept thinking of those bags of imported bananas from tropical countries with huge deadly spiders in them. What if scary stonefish had become illegal immigrants here, seeking a new life?
I asked my Irish companions “Do you have stone fish here?” They looked at me blankly. “WTF is a stonefish? Is that one of those things you see when you smoke too much marijuana…?”
And there it was in google (thanks for the coverage, Brittas Bay phone mast!) I limped over to the lifesaver station, and told them of my spike experience. Right away, they said, I’ll put the kettle on. They had been trained and knew exactly what to do. They even offered me a cup of tea because the kettle was boiled anyway. Legends.
If you get speared by one of these little nasties, once the wound has been treated and pain has eased, the injury should be checked for the remains of broken spines, and any found need to be removed.
As for fatalities, there are none to be found on the interwebs with the exception of some poor dude in the UK, who was fishing off Dungeness and suffered multiple stings. Also, Jonathan Wickings died after being stung by an unknown sea creature off the coast of Majorca in 1998. This was reported as a possible weever sting, but no one knows for sure.
So my advice is this. If you get spiked, then don’t doubt yourself, head for the lifesaver station. Hot water will have you on your way to recovery in 20 minutes. If you are in an area without a lifesaver station, take a thermos of boiling water in your beach bag. The solution is to act fast with the hot water. And leave yourself enough afterwards to have a nice cup of tea. Also, if you are swimming at low tide, wear Crocs or other plastic shoes until the tide comes up again.
And finally, don’t sit down in the shallows at low tide, or you could be having your butt examined by strangers in red and yellow clothing. It sounds like the start of an adult film, so don’t go there.
So St Patrick, you failed us on this one. You took the snakes, but you should have taken the damn crappy spiky fish too. #LazySaint
I think my case was probably unusual, so try to enjoy your swim anyway, despite my sorry tale of woe. Go well, swimmers. Go well.
For more information on this stupid fish, see here.