Diving on Koh Tao: How a Jellyfish Ruined My New Year’s Eve

My leg swelled up so much my ankle disappeared and I couldn't rotate my foot. This must be what pregnant women experience.
Fresh from the doctor.

You toasted the new year alone with a bottle of stale water and some antibiotics in your friend’s apartment in Chumphon. Fireworks burst behind the cover of coconut trees as the clock on your netbook reset and a fresh wave of nausea passed over you.

A brush with a jellyfish off the coast of Koh Tao put a premature end to your diving lessons and left you with an expensive doctor’s bill and several symptoms you would rather have gone without; namely, a heart rate as high as 114, fever, breathlessness, muscle weakness and constant and severe nausea and stomach cramps.

You had been preparing to descend on your third dive when you and the jellyfish collided.

There is nothing so wonderfully bizarre as the feeling of weightlessness; floating through a cloud of fish with nothing but the gentle purr of your regulator and the cool pressure of the ocean confers a feeling of equanimity you’re aching to achieve again.

Your instructor tells you to begin your descent. You swim backwards along the surface to reach the guide rope and feel a ball of needles brush against your calves. It starts burning a few seconds later, and you pause in the water to take a look. The ocean is a milky sapphire colour, and yields nothing.

“I think I’ve been stung,” you call out to your instructor. She swims over to look at your leg.

“Did you see what it was? Does it hurt very badly? We can go back onto the boat to put some vinegar on it.”

Every minute you stay on the surface cuts into your time underwater, so you decline.

“I don’t think it was a box jellyfish. You would be in agony if it were.” She says.

The site of the sting two days later
The site of the sting two days later

The burning subsided fairly quickly and the pain became more like a severe leg cramp. Every stroke sent a little shiver of pain up your leg, and the cold and the pressure didn’t help as much as you had hoped. Later on you find out that the waters around Koh Tao have an 80% infection rate, largely due to the fact that the island’s sewers empty into them.

You complete your Open Water qualification, but decide not to go onto your advanced right away. You feel the first of the shakiness on the ferry ride back to the mainland, and by the time you get to your friend’s apartment you’re feeling worse. The next day- New Year’s Eve- you’re bedridden.

There isn’t anything else to do but take your pills at the correct time and wait it out. As strangers’ fireworks herald the new year in the Eastern hemisphere, your friends and family back home in the UK still have another 7 hours to go. Meanwhile, those following the Chinese, Islamic or French Revolutionary calendars (on a slight digression, I think the latter is genius*) had their New Year’s several months ago. January 1st is to your reasoning an arbitrary date, and being too ill to celebrate it wasn’t particularly heartbreaking for you.

The jellyfish sting looks like scabies and it’s going to leave a bit of a scar which you aren’t so pleased about, but at least it didn’t kill you. Happy new year!


*Ten hours a day, ten days per week and three weeks per month with 6 days national holiday at the end of each year to bridge the gap between the calendar and solar year. To my eternal dismay, it didn’t catch on.

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24 comments

  1. Wow that is insane! I didn’t realize jellyfish stings caused so much discomfort; mostly because my best jellyfish reference is from the TV sitcom “Friends.” 🙂

    • Well you’d assume they’d be the most chilled out creature in the sea (the marine equivalent of a sloth I guess).. 97% water, no brain, virtually no control over the direction they go in.. and a sting that can stop a full grown man’s heart.

  2. “Liked” because if your resilience and similar arbitrary feelings towards January 1st, not because of the sting. Hope it doesn’t scare too badly!

  3. I’m “liking” this post because of the excellent writing ( even though it feels really awkward to like a post about your injured state :/), because honestly, that first paragraph is the best thing i’ve read concerning the start of a New Year. Hope you feel better soon, and that if you do gain a scar, it will turn out to be utterly bitchin’ 🙂

  4. But you kept going – you were super awesome! Since you guys came in last, we had no idea what had happened. I saw it when you passed me and I thought back to the comment you made about not getting on a scooter in Koh Tao. I just thought you had changed your mind and suffered one of the many tourist scooter accidents… And thanks for letting me know about the sewer system! I believe I specifically stated that I did not want to know anything about it. You still rock 👌❤️😎

    • Knowledge is power my friend (but ignorance is bliss too). Fortunately the sting seems to be almost healed. My leg still looks ugly but it could be worse!

  5. That’s fascinating (and terrible for you)! I had a sting like that as a child, but I wasn’t really sure I remembered it right. You described it perfectly. Thank you for posting! Hope you’re feeling better.

  6. Hi, I’m an Australian living in Viet Nam and your blog has been fun to read.
    You can probably guess from my background and adopted country that I’ve been stung by many creatures, many times. Jellyfish stings aren’t a joking matter (there are a couple of species that can kill) and you sometimes need medical assistance.

    But if you’re in pain, not in danger, a good tip is bathing the sting in warm water, putting it in the water to begin with is agony but you get more relief than ice in the end. Also rubbing a wet, dissoluble aspirin on the area helps too. Vinegar and urine don’t work, they just make you smell funny.

    Stay safe!

    • I’ve trained as a divemaster and part of our course was on diving medicine. Seems there is no agreement over whether vinegar works or makes it worse. They also rinsed my sting in cold water which did absolutely nothing for the pain. Oh well, the scar is fading quite nicely actually!

      In my experience, ant stings and spider bites hurt much more. I live in constant fear of a second encounter with a fire ant..

  7. I got a jellyfish sting on the second day i visited Thailand 5 years ago and the scar was simply 4 spotty tentacle-shaped lines which I can still see (very vaguely) when I get a tan. Probably not what you want to hear but I didn’t apply anything to it or take anything for it so I hope yours clears up better than mine. It can be a great talking point…

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