Box Jellyfish & Irukandji : Australia Stinger Season What You Should Know
I grew up in the deep south… of Australia. I’d never heard of a stinger or a deadly jellyfish until Hollywood educated me. So it’s no surprise to me that many people arriving in Northern Australia are bewildered when they learn that there are so many caveats to accessing the pristine waters that lured them there in the first place. Northern Queensland is especially associated with stingers owing mostly to the abundance of beaches. The good news is that Australia’s coastal communities are well versed in the “stinger season” and have adapted to a lifestyle that has learnt to make the necessary allowances to keep the potential of harm to a minimum.
Australian Jellyfish Facts
There are many types of jellyfish in Australian waters. The 2 jellyfish of concern for the water user are the Box jellyfish and the Irukandji. There is a lot that is still unknown about them but I’ve cobbled together as much information as I could that I thought would help educate, perhaps terrify but not turn you off visiting some of the most beautiful areas in Australia.
So, first the terrify bit. There a couple of different species of Box jellyfish and they range in size from 10cm to 30cm across their “bell”. Their tentacles are much longer and can number up to 60, try this link for a good visual. They are the most venomous creature on the planet and can kill a healthy adult in minutes.. look over there, something shiny😕.
The good bit is that Box jellyfish are way more predictable than Irukandjis (although there’s lots more of them). They like a good feed in the morning or afternoon, commonly in calmer waters around the southern end of bays or beaches. You’d do well to stay away from river mouths and mangroves – but only if you plan on avoiding them.
They seem to be active in the warmer months, say January, February & March and can be found in large numbers after the monsoonal rains kick in. They continue to be active until the weather cools in May or June. It’s believed that Box jellyfish spend the winter out in deeper water, but may come in to shore any time if the conditions are right .
Irukandji jellyfish are tiny. Adults range from 8mm-17mm in body height, try this link if you want the full frontal. They have the most potent venom of all but their size makes them less lethal than the Box jellyfish. There has only been 2 confirmed deaths from Irukandji stings, the last being in the 1980’s.
These guys are less predictable than Box jellyfish and as far as where and when they can be found, it would be irresponsible of me not to be accurate so I’m just going to quote my source directly.
“Certain factors appear to be highly indicative of the presence of Irukandjis, especially in combination:
- Sustained northeasterlies
- Flat calm weather
- Cool oceanic current
- Salps and jelly buttons seen in water
- Jelly buttons washed up at high tide line
- Sea lice felt in the water
- Afternoon high tide
However, Irukandjis have been reported under all conditions, including rough weather and wintertime.”
Where are Box Jellyfish & Irukandji?
Box Jellyfish are more predictable. When “stinger season” is discussed, Irukandji is generally thrown in the mix as a guide. The actual location of these creatures is entirely up to the conditions. The ocean temperature, currents and wind. You should always seek local advice before venturing into the water. The map below is indicative of the areas of Australian coastline where they have been found.
The stinger season varies, generally speaking the warmer the water the longer the season. So therefore, the further north you go, the longer the season. Again, you need to speak with the local lifeguards to be sure.
October – May is the guideline for stinger season. But they may be present in the waters of northern Australia year round. This covers from Geraldton all the way around to Exmouth in Western Australia. There suggestions that Irukandji are present in most Australian waters and there have been some stinging incidents as far south as Fraser Island (about 350km north of Brisbane).
Avoiding & Safeguarding Against Box Jellyfish & Irukandji
In over 10 years of engaging in watersports in Queensland we’ve never seen a live jellyfish, another reason why they are dangerous. They are very hard to spot. We have seen them on the beach… which is perhaps one of the surest indicators of staying out of the water, maybe we’ve floated over them or swum with them. You’re likely to never know if you prepare correctly and heed the advice.
Bottom line get advice before going into the water. Speak to the nearest Lifeguard Station… or even the person in it😉, just make sure they’re wearing the uniform. Everybody has an opinion on stingers, but these folks deal with them as a part of their job and will have up to date information for you and posted at the beach.
I’ve already covered the less predictable Irukandjis but the following conditions for both species are thought to contribute to a heightened risk of stings :
- Calm water or sheltered beaches/bay with low wave action
- Height of summer
- Warm water temperature
- Proximity to river-mouth
*It is still possible to get stung outside of these conditions. 
Is It Worth Going To Northern Australia in The Stinger Season?
Of course. Aside from the long list of things to see and do that don’t involve the ocean , tour operators wouldn’t take you out onto the water if they thought it was too dangerous. But they will likely give you a “teletubbie” style stinger suit to wear – which is just a lycra body suit but it will protect you (blue works well on me… just sayin😉). Although tour operators will provide them, it is worth buying a stinger suit if you are spending any amount of time in northern Australia during stinger season, they retail for around AUD$20-40.
So, there are well tested systems in place, you just need to pay attention when you are thinking about playing in stinger waters.
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Credits & References
Whilst many of the images are our own we did get some help from the some talented individuals, we like to give credit when it’s due! If you click their links under the images you will see some fantastic portfolios of passionate travellers and photographers. All images were obtained under the Creative Commons Licensing Agreements