Does Topsail Island, NC Have Jellyfish? (Types, Photos & Stings Explained)

Topsail Island is a unique stretch of land just off the coast of North Carolina.

It is a barrier island — a type of island formed entirely by tidal action from massive ocean currents, which deposit sand on the continental shelf over many, many years, eventually creating an island.

Often, this happens in chains of islands, like most of those found off the Carolina coasts.

Topsail Island is a lesser known destination, making it a wonderful place to rest and relax. With local, small-town charm in it’s southern town and resort-style amenities at the iconic Surf City, there’s something for everyone.

But if you’re in Topsail or planning a trip there soon, you might be wondering:

Does Topsail Island have jellyfish?

Photo by gardener41/Flickr

As a hotspot for marine animal migration, the waters around Topsail Island are abundant with marine life, including plenty of jellyfish.

The main types of jellyfish you’ll find in Topsail Island, NC are:

  • Lion’s mane jellyfish
  • Moon jellies
  • Sea nettles
  • Cannonball jellyfish
  • And sea wasps

Most of the stings from jellyfish in this region only cause mild discomfort. Some species have more severe stings, but it’s highly unlikely that a jellyfish sting in Topsail will be fatal or require medical attention — only the relatively rare sea wasp should cause concern.

Let’s take a look at each of these jellyfish, photos and ways to identify them, plus sting history and jellyfish season at Topsail. Along the way, hopefully you’ll gain a greater knowledge and appreciation of these fascinating animals!

Types of Jellyfish at Topsail Island, NC

Jellyfish are a common and well-known marine animal. There are over 2,000 different species, though well over half of those are just one type.

While there are tons of different jellyfish across the world, only some of those are found near Topsail Island in North Carolina, and only some have dangerous stings.

If you’re planning a vacation to the iconic beaches here, you’ll want to be aware of Topsail Island jellyfish, and how to avoid an unpleasant encounter when jellyfish numbers rise during the summer.

Here’s what you might find in the waters around Topsail.

Lion’s Mane

Dan HershmanCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Lion’s Mane is the largest type of jellyfish found in North Carolina’s waters (it’s also the largest species in the world!).

While they can grow to truly massive sizes in other parts of the world, around Topsail Island, they’re generally a comfortable 6 – 12 inches in diameter at the bell.

Lion’s Manes are fairly easy to identify. Aside from their size, they’re also very unique in color. They’re the only orange jellyfish!

Lion’s Mane jellies may be the largest you’ll find near North Carolina, but their sting doesn’t match their size. Generally, symptoms of a Lion’s Mane sting are mild, with slightly more discomfort than that from a moon jelly.

Moon Jelly

By Alexander Vasenin – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Moon jellies are the most otherworldly of the Topsail Island jellyfish.

Indeed, they’re one of the most recognizable jellyfish species in the world, partly thanks to how well they thrive in aquarium settings.

Moon jellies have become quite recognizable, even though they’re difficult to spot in the wild – they’re transparent! Look for the pink glands in the center — that’s how you can spot a moon jelly.

A sting from a moon jelly is very moderate, with only mild discomfort that rarely requires medical attention. Generally, moon jellies are considered quite harmless.

Sea Nettles

By Jarek Tuszyński / CC-BY-SA-3.0 & GDFL, CC BY-SA 3.0

These jellies are considered large for the region, but don’t beat out the Lion’s Mane for size.

Sea nettles are more difficult to identify, since they are semi-transparent and can blend into the surroundings.

A sea nettle’s most notable features are reddish-brown stripes and small white dots all over its bell.

While sea nettles may be smaller than Lion’s Mane jellies, their sting is generally more potent, ranging from moderate to severe, but not strong enough to kill a human.

Cannonball Jellyfish

Judy Gallagher, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

While jellyfish as a whole are quite common along the North Carolina coast, the most common species is by far the cannonball jellyfish.

It goes by several other endearing names, notably “cabbageheads” and “jellyballs.”

Unsurprisingly, they’re very easy to identify. They have no tentacles, but rather vague appendages hanging below the bell, which is itself pure white with dark brown, vein-like bands.

These recognizable cannonball jellies are the most common, but the least harmful of the Topsail Island jellyfish.

It has a very weak sting, and is not considered a threat to humans.

Sea wasps

Avispa marina.jpg: Guido Gautsch, Toyota, Japanderivative work: Mithril, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Sea wasps are a type of box jellyfish, in the same class as those found in more dangerous waters, like where they’re most known in Australia.

It is important to note that while sea wasps are a type of box jelly, they are not as dangerous as their southern hemisphere counterparts.

Sea wasps have a very small transparent bell, with long blueish tentacles that can reach up to 10 feet.

While sea wasps are very uncommon in North Carolina waters, it’s important to be cautious and heed any warnings from officials that they’ve been seen.

The sea wasp is the most dangerous of the North Carolina jellyfish. It has a very potent and painful sting, and even a small encounter with a sea wasp can be severe.

If stung, it’s best to seek immediate medical attention, particularly if there is an adverse reaction, or the sting is in the neck or face area.

Jellyfish Season & Sting History at Topsail Island

Jellyfish have always been present in the coastal waters and along the beaches of the eastern seaboard.

Since jellyfish exist in such high numbers, especially in warmer waters during summer months, the chances of encountering them in the area are not low.

Taking the right precautions is highly recommended. However, even then, jellyfish stings are reported quite frequently at Topsail Island.

In the last several years, jellyfish stings have become more common, sometimes reaching around 100 stings in just one day.

This is most likely due to higher numbers of jellyfish in the area.

There could be several causes, but warming water in the ocean currents and a longer warm season in the area are two very likely factors.

Because of these conditions, officials urge any beachgoers to take extreme caution, particularly because most jellyfish in the area are difficult and often impossible to see, meaning you likely won’t know a jellyfish is present until it stings.

So should you be worried?

Jellyfish are not a predator to humans, and they’re rarely considered aggressive. Most of the species in the Topsail area cause only mild stings and none are likely to be fatal. But it’s a good idea to exercise caution, especially during jellyfish season.

So when is jellyfish season at Topsail Island?

The waters around Topsail Island are home to some of the world’s greatest ocean currents and marine migrations. Many marine animals use these physical systems to aid their seasonal migrations, generally moving south towards warmer, tropical water in winter.

Jellyfish, however, don’t migrate in the same way.

In fact, jellyfish can’t actually move on their own, except for vertically. This means that they are entirely at the call of natural ocean sea currents, and almost all of their movement into and out of the region is simply due to being carried by the water.

So, if jellyfish don’t migrate like other animals, why do they tend to appear seasonally?

Jellyfish season near Topsail Island is a known time period between early July and late August — sometimes starting earlier and ending later — when jellyfish seem to appear along the coast in droves.

This happens because the water warms during summer months. This weakens the separation between coastal water and vaster ocean currents, allowing more movement both closer to the water surface and closer to shore.

This movement carries with it anything in the water that can’t resist — like jellyfish. It’s also a big part of why warmer water is thriving with more life, as abundant nutrients are also along for the ride!

During jellyfish season at Topsail Island, jellyfish numbers can rise to the tens of thousands. 

Topsail Island jellyfish become more abundant both in the water, and along the beaches as jellyfish (or parts of jellyfish, which are often just as dangerous) wash ashore.

As you may have noticed from the descriptions above, many jellyfish are difficult to spot. This contributes to the high number of stings during jellyfish season along the North Carolina coast.

Of the reported stings, the most common culprit by far is the sea nettle.

Sea nettle stings range from moderate to severe, but are not potent enough to kill.

They will generally cause some pain and a burning sensation, along with redness around the site of the sting.

Interestingly, the majority of these stings are from dead jellyfish!

Jellyfish tentacles still contain venom even if they’re not attached to a body. The same process that carries live jellies ashore also carries dead ones.

Plus, the relationship between the coastline and deeper ocean currents means there are often patches of cold water, and a sudden drop in temperature can kill jellyfish in swaths.

Avoiding Jellyfish Stings at Topsail Island (Tips & Things to Know)

Because jellyfish don’t and actually can’t prey on humans of their own volition, jellyfish stings and encounters are entirely due to chance.

Despite this, stings happen frequently in warm coastal waters simply due to the massive numbers of jellyfish hanging out in the area.

Unfortunately, the only way to be 100% sure to avoid a jellyfish sting is to avoid the water and beaches completely.

Since that isn’t very practical (or enjoyable!) for a beachtime vacation, the second-best thing to do is simply to stay informed on how to reduce the chances of a jellyfish encounter, and stay prepared with what to do if you or someone with you experiences a jellyfish sting.

Here are a few things to keep in mind before diving headfirst into Topsail Island Jellyfish season.

  1. Stay informed on conditions. Due to ocean currents, some days will have higher jellyfish numbers than others. Check official information for any day-to-day updates, and be aware of posted signs.
  2. Wear protective clothing. Even a thin layer of clothing to cover exposed skin can make a huge difference in reducing the dangers of stings. There are many options, including wetsuits, rashguards, and even panty hose!
  3. Don’t touch any part of a jellyfish tentacle. Jellyfish tentacles release venom on contact. Even if the animal is dead, a tentacle is unattached, or it’s only a small part of a tentacle, it can still cause harm.
  4. Know when to seek medical attention. Most jellyfish stings cause only mild discomfort and can be treated at home. However, if a sting has affected an area larger than the size of half of one arm, or if the person is showing signs of an allergic reaction to the sting, immediate medical attention is required. Severe stings can become dangerous in a matter of minutes.

Wrapping Up

Jellyfish are extremely common along the North Carolina coast.

In warm summer months, their numbers are estimated to reach the tens of thousands, though the vast majority are farther out in the water, simply carried along by the natural ocean currents.

Inevitably, though, some of them make it to shore.

While jellyfish are known for their stings, they are also essential components of the marine ecosystem!

Mild stings in the Topsail Island region aren’t uncommon, but the vast majority of stings from jellyfish here are very mild — only a small number of dangerous jellies are found in the area each season.

By being properly cautious, a vacation to Topsail Island will be sting-free!

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Hope this helps!