Sleep with the Fishes

It was about the size of a golf ball, translucent, purple rings concentrated in the center, like small little tussock bellflowers. The water was a bit murky, clouded with sand, but there was no denying that the thing bobbing at the surface was not trash, it was a jellyfish.

Moon Jellies. Photo by ArielleJay on MorgueFiles

We were staying in a resort at the docking point of Ao Muong Bay in Ko Tao, a world famous snorkeling site and the beach was all ours. It was before 9 a.m., the tourist boats started arriving each day around 11, unloading hundreds of people onto a beach that was only about 100 feet long. Mornings were our time to try to beat the crowd, be the only people in the water swimming with the wildlife.

Before 11 a.m. © James 
After 11…view from our balcony

Only the full moon and the tide had different plans for us.

“James, there’s jellyfish.”

“I think we’ll be fine. We’ll just go this way,” he said walking around the other side of the pier, snorkel in hand.

Hmmm…curious. But I let fear stop me in the past, many times over and I thought why not let his confidence buoy me up. We would be fine. And I wanted to see those fishes. After all, aren’t some jellyfish fine to swim with. Maybe these little guys would be of that variety. Ignorance is bliss right?

I stepped in. So far so good. No jellies. The water was clear. The sun was coming out from behind the morning rain clouds. This was going to be okay. My goggles were on, snorkel in mouth and I was off.

There were little electric blue fish that popped against the brown and green rocks. Bright orange fish that looked like plastic toys that could be found in a child’s bathtub. Large parrotfish  nibbled the rocks below us, the crunching sound echoing through the water. Skinny angelfish cruised between rocks and coral. There were flat, skinny fish, translucent with only a thin line of neon yellow racing along their side. They were almost invisible and it felt like a treat when they came into focus along the bottom of the ocean floor.

We were taking in the sights. Enjoying the calm of the water, still the only two people to be floating around this patch of paradise. Maybe we had been in the water for twenty minutes, no more, when I heard a popping sound in the water. It got louder and started to fill my ears, like Rice Krispies when milk enters the bowl. Then suddenly I felt a searing pain on my arm. I shot up, treading water to stay afloat. My neck hurt, my arm. The jellies!

James popped up at the same time.

“I’ve been stung!” I yelled then magically propelled myself back down into the water and took off like a torpedo from a submarine. I could have probably matched Mike Phelps with the speed at which I swam to get back to the shore. I saw little white spots of light start to form in my eyes and I started to worry that I might pass out in the water. James wasn’t far behind and we both made it to shore, no fainting. It seems he had been stung as well.

I had a giant white welt slashed across my upper left arm like a whip lash. My neck was covered with small red dots. A similar rash was spread across James’ torso at various locations. The jellyfish had attacked after all.

An attendant of the hotel came over to fix our umbrella and James motioned to our stings trying to ask the man if they’re the type of jellies that kill you. The man looked confused. James made the motion of slicing through his throat, you know, the universal sign of being killed, whacked, put to death, sleep with the fishes, then pointed to my arm. The man shook his head and said no and kind of laughed, walking away, leaving us with our self-inflicted injuries. He was probably thinking, “If you chose to go swimming with jellyfish, you deserve to die. Darwin Award.” But you know, in Thai.

We laid on our beach chairs admiring the view and licking our wounds, so to speak, when we began to notice that no scuba boats showed up that day, no water taxis full of tourists looking to snorkel. Apparently we didn’t get the memo that today was not the day to go in the water.


Later that night, I woke up with a start, convinced that I had been stung by an eel, as well as a jelly. It didn’t make sense that I heard electric popping. The sting on my arm was much larger, one solid oblong shape and white while all the other stings were small red dots spread out like a rash. I had to have been stung by something else. I searched and searched on the web but could find nothing about what an electric eel sting looked like. They didn’t even seem to live in Thailand so that removed them from the location altogether. It was just one mean jellyfish. I later learned that it was a moon jellyfish, one of the most common jellyfish to be stung by. 

The next day the jellyfish seemed to be gone. We took the early morning boat over to to Koh Nang Yuan. The water was the temperature and color of a bathtub. We paddled about, took pictures, laid in beach chairs for 75 baht a piece (you can’t use towels as it will take the sand away from the beach–or so they say) and decided to go snorkeling. The coral was mulch, just shredded under people’s feet in one long gray coral boneyard, but somehow there were still fish swimming about and munching on the leftovers.

Koh Nang Yuan devoid of people. So lovely before the onslaught of bodies.


We cruised out towards the scuba divers and suddenly (irrationally) I heard the popping sound again. I was traumatized, hearing things that probably weren’t there and freaking out. Later that afternoon, I was determined to brave my fears. Our “private” beach was full of tourists again, everyone splashing about in the water. Everywhere I turned I saw jellyfish, or what I thought was jellyfish. It was just the detritus of a busy tourist day, plastic trash bags or plastic food coverings of one sort or another were bobbing in the water. On previous days I had tried to scoop anything out that I had found, but this was too much and it was making my heart race every time I spied one. I went to the shore. I would be safe at the shore.


And the shore gave me a treat. A school of small silver fish were swimming in circles right between the water taxis. I could sit in the water and they literally did circles around me, every time I reached a hand out, the school would conform and push it’s collective body out and away and then come back again like there was a magical barrier that protected the fish from me. Sparkles of yellow, green and blue would glint off their silver scales. The circles they did made me feel like a Disney princess in an underwater tale, like they were going to spin so hard that I would rise from the water and flick my hair back while being held aloft by their sheer numbers. It was beautiful and mysterious and magical all at the same time.

I’ll never know where that popping came from, and I’ll try to remind myself that jellyfish come in at the full moon in the future, but I’ll forever be thankful for the little glimpses I got of ocean life before I was stung. I will also be extremely grateful for the fact that it wasn’t the type of jellyfish that makes you sleep with the fishes…permanently.

Featured Image by Agarianna on MorgueFiles

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