Portuguese man o'war in Looe

Finally! Portuguese Man O’ War in Looe

I’m always pleased to hear about interesting things other people have found around Cornwall especially from readers of this blog. I’ve been more than a touch jealous these last few weeks, however, of all the people finding Portuguese man o’war. They turn up occasionally in Cornwall but I’ve never seen one before and I feel like I’m missing my chance.

According to other people’s messages, Portuguese man o’war are everywhere and have been for weeks, covering strand lines, floating in pools, strewn on rocks everywhere from Penzance to Wales. And for weeks I’ve been searching and searching my local beaches and finding none. Until today.

It’s low tide and there are posts bouncing around social media saying that there are Portuguese man o’war around Looe. I have a house to clean, scones to make and blogs to write, so of course I drop everything and drag my other half and Junior to Hannafore beach.

I know they’ll be lifted off with each tide and battered and probably blown away with the next storm, so I’m not going to let this opportunity pass. Junior thinks I’ve gone mad though. He knows how powerful their sting is and insists, at first, that he’s not going near one.

His reluctance evaporates within a minute of arriving at the beach, when I find the first one. We all huddle round. The colours take me by surprise. In photos they always look a striking blue, but in real life they’re iridescent and seem to glow in the sun.

My first Portuguese man o'war
My first Portuguese man o’war

Apart from the colours, the float looks like a pasty to me (albeit a Devon one that’s been crimped along the top rather than the sides). The float is filled with carbon monoxide and other gases that the animal can adjust to control its buoyancy. Beneath the float, the tentacles form a blue stringy gloop on the rock.

Portuguese man o'war - like a pasty with the crimping on top.
Portuguese man o’war – like a pasty with the crimping on top.

Junior finds one afloat in a pool and I can’t resist taking a closer look. I slip on my yellow Marigolds – just in case – and scoop it up in my bucket.

Other half took this one of me in action
Other half took this one of me in action

As its tentacles unfurl, we get a better view of the animal – or rather the colony of organisms that make up this creature. The Portuguese man o’war is a siphonophore, so is not a jellyfish, but is made of many linked organisms that work together to survive.

Below the float, you can see the other zooids which catch prey, digest food and reproduce
Below the float, you can see the other zooids which catch prey, digest food and reproduce

Each organism within the colony has a job: forming the float, hunting prey, digesting food or reproducing. None of these different parts, known as zooids, can survive on its own so they rely on forming the colony – the Portuguese man o’war.

Close-up the long tentacles resemble a string of blue beads. Contained within them are many nematocysts, stinging cells that fire out powerful barbed harpoons full of poison to paralyse and trap prey.

A stinging tentacle of the Portuguese man o'war
A stinging tentacle of the Portuguese man o’war

We put the Portuguese man o’war in a pool and watch it blow from one side to the other. The float quickly rights itself, crimped side facing up, and catches the wind. The animal has no control over what direction it goes in, but it moves fast with the breeze behind it.

Only a very few specialised predators are able to eat them, such as the Logggerhead turtle and the Ocean sunfish. Depending on the winds, they can travel enormous distances in a lifetime before they blow onto a beach and perish. We find well over a dozen on a short stretch of shore.

Among the seaweed there are several stranded Portuguese man o'war
Among the seaweed there are several stranded Portuguese man o’war

It’s impossible to know how far these Portuguese man o’war have come to reach our shores or how long they’ll continue arriving, but mass strandings like this happen rarely in Cornwall.

I’m so pleased I haven’t missed this one.

Portuguese man o'war in the bucket
Portuguese man o’war in the bucket
A single By-the-wind-sailor, Velella velella, washed up with the Portuguese man o'war
A single By-the-wind-sailor, Velella velella, washed up with the Portuguese man o’war

 

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6 thoughts on “Finally! Portuguese Man O’ War in Looe”

    1. To be fair I rarely prioritise housework over anything… especially when there’s a beach involved. This was definitely worth dropping everything for. I hope you get to see them sometime, it’s impossible to capture the colours properly on my camera. They’re incredible (colonies of) creatures. 🙂

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    1. Most things are better than housework, but this was definitely one not to miss. I hope you get to see them sometime too. By the wind sailors wash up much more frequently than Portugues man o’war. You sometimes get the lovely purple bubble-raft shells (Janintha janintha) with the strandings too. All the best, Heather

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    1. I hope you do get to see them sometime Sean – they’re incredible both in looks and the weirdness of their biology. Your posts are full of amazing birds and other creatures I never see too – it’s lovely to be able to glimpse a different world through your blog. Off to read your latest now! 🙂

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