IberiaNature A guide to the natural history of Spain
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Bites and Stings 2: Sharks, weaver fish, jellyfish and other dangerous animals in the seas around Spain

Here's the second part of the 'Bites and Stings' thing, a compendium of beasties in Spain wanting a piece of us. This part deals with the sea. Click here for first part dealing with the land (bears, snakes, spiders, caterpillars, etc.)

Shark attacks in Spain See complete article on sharks in Spain
Despite the huge numbers of people bathing in the Spanish Mediterranean, reports of dangerous sharks (tiburones) are rare to say to the least. A scuba diver was killed by a Great White Shark in Italian waters in 1989, and nearer home another Great White was washed up dead at Tossa de Mar in Catalonia in 1985. . There are, however, two recorded shark attacks in Spain in the twentieth century. The first one was on a Spanish windsurfer in 1986 who was bitten in the leg and seriously injured by what is thought to be a Great White (tiburón blanco or jaquetón - Carcharodon carcharias ). He later had to have a leg amputated. In 1993, a second attack took place on a swimmer by a "2-metre long, small and slender shark". Identification is unsure. The man lost several toes in one foot. So a tiny though real risk does exist.

Rays, weaver fish and scorpionfish

Several species of rays (rayas) are found in Spanish waters, in shallow sandy sea beds. Although not aggressive, if aggrieved, they can lash out with their sting-laden tail, resulting in lacerations, local irritation and risk of infection. A much more common and serious danger are the weaver fish which bury themselves in the sand and wait for smaller fish to pounce on as they swim by. If trod on they will erect their poison-laden dorsal fin in defence. The venom can cause intense pain, and deaths have even been recorded. Soaking in hot water removes the toxicity of the venom. Iberian wevers include: the Lesser Weaver (salvariego - Echiichthys vipera ), the Greater weever , (pez escorpión - Trachinus draco ) and the Spotted weever (pez araña - Trachinus araneus ). People are stung every year in Spain. Finally, the spiny fins of various scorpionfish, which tend to hide amongst the rocks including the Large-scaled scorpionfish (cabracho - Scorpaena scrofa ), also give painful though generally less serious stings when stepped on.

Jellyfish in Spain
As everywhere the most persistent danger are jellyfish (medusas). They tend to occur in swarms and so are easily visible and, in theory avoided. A combination of factors determines the concentrations of jellyfish in a given year. A warm and dry winter and spring inland will normally lead to a high build-up of jellyfish at sea. This seemingly unconnected chain of events is because the cold, less salty water of the coast acts as a barrier to jellyfish. They normally live between 20 and 40 miles from the coast where the water is warmer and saltier. However, when rain-fed freshwater river input is lower, salinity increases, allowing the jellies in. Other factors include winds and sea currents. Jellyfish just drift in the currents like buoys. Hot summer weather certainly also brings them in, which also attracts us in our millions, and so sting numbers increase dramatically. Jellyfish can also swarm in the winter but nobody notices.

Given the importance of beaches to the Spanish economy, jellyfish swarms are regularly reported in the local press in summer. Despite these warnings, hundreds of people are stung every day up and down the Spanish Mediterranean. 11,571 people were attended by health authorities last year in Valencia alone. Probably the commonest jellyfish in the Spanish Mediterranean is a nasty little one called the Sea nettle or Mauve stinger ('medusa luminiscente' Pelagia noctiluca). It swarms can lead to beaches being closed. Also beware of the Compass jellyfish (Chrysaora hysoscella), identified by a ring of brown dots around a white saucer-shaped body, as it gives a potent sting which can produce extremely painful, long lasting weals. More worryingly, in 2005, dozens of Portuguese Man-o-war (Carabela portuguesa - Physalia physalis) were detected off the Asturian coast among swarms of harmless Velella velella. The purple Man-o-war is not a true jellyfish, but a colony of hydrozoan polyps. It can in extreme cases provoke a cardiac arrest and death in particularly sensitive persons.

  • News 01/07/2006 Jellyfish numbers to increase in Spanish Med, and Portuguese Man O'War may be on their way (El Mundo/CSIC).

Spanish sea urchins (erizos de mar) are not poisonous, though if you tread on them their spikes can stick into your foot and get infected.

There is also a whole host of underwater things that you are only like to meet if you go scuba diving, which I don't. Remember by far the biggest cause of death in the sea is drowning.

*I found this on a shark newsgroup:

*A few years ago a female was caught near Tossa de Mar (Gerona Spain). Is it true that the local authorities silenced the news because of tourism?

Yes, indeed they did.... unsuccessfully (reported widely the next day in Catalunya newsmedia, pictures 'n all!). The Guardia Civil made a big meal out of their midnight antics on behalf of the Catalunya authorities, scooping the Tiburon blanco off the beach at 0100hrs with aflat-back truck and whisking it off to the local inland garbage fillsite, where (luckily) the folk from MarineLand at Palafolls located it and recovered the carcass back for examination the following day. It was nearly a shocking and lamentable loss of valuable data, all brought about through JAWS-inspired motivation given the tourist bias at Tossa de Mar, even when it occurred (November 17th 1992). Incidentally, the specimen was an adult male, 4750mm total length, weighing ca. 1000kg. It stranded moribund, rather than being caught.
I still have to smile at the thought of a nearly 5 metre white shark lying stinking-up an inland fill site, supposedly secreted away frompublic attention following a pseudo-special forces operation at the dead of night....I mean, it's not like dumping a dead 3cm immature goldfishin the trash, is it?. After all - someone *might* just spot it.... IAN K. FERGUSSON
From the SHARK TRUST newsgroup here

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