CLEARWATER — Beach lifeguard Cameron Moeller was wrapping up his daily training routine when he saw what he thought was a patch of seaweed.
Swimming about 100 yards off Clearwater Beach in 8-foot deep water, Moeller brushed the patch with his left hand.
That's when he felt the first sting.
"When it first hit me, it felt like a hot knife going in," said Moeller, who has monitored Clearwater's shorelines for the past five years. "The pain, it was bad, really bad."
As a lifeguard, the 23-year-old has pulled four drowning swimmers out of the water and helped save a dozen more.
But on Wednesday morning, caught in the grip of a Portuguese man-of-war, he found himself fighting for his own life.
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The current blew the gelatinous man-of-war onto Moeller's stomach. As he twisted onto his back to thrash it off, the creature wrapped its 8-foot tentacles around his chest, back and arm.
As the pain got worse, Moeller continued to swim toward the shore, dragging the man-of-war behind him.
Panicking, he started pulling off tentacles and swimming faster.
He dragged the man-of-war about 20 yards on shore before finally freeing himself. Then Moeller rinsed at a nearby shower, while the other lifeguards doused him with vinegar. About 15 minutes later, pain hit his chest like a hammer and he struggled to breathe.
He was rushed to the beach's nearby fire station where they hooked him up to a saline IV and treated his body with alcohol. As fire rescue crews monitored his heart rate, he became dizzy and even briefly passed out.
About 20 minutes later, he was taken to Morton Plant Hospital, where emergency crews monitored him for the next two hours. He was given hydrocortisone cream, some steroids and painkillers.
On Thursday, he tried to return to work. His boss wouldn't let him.
"He's a tough kid and a good lifeguard," said Joe Lane, the chief life guard.
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Although common from Texas to Florida and north to Cape Cod, the man-of-war rarely travels near shore, tending to stay in open water, where it is pushed by waves and currents. Clearwater officials say they haven't seen one in at least three years.
But with winds blowing from the west the past two weeks, Clearwater officials say a few were found Wednesday on the city's beach. For the next few days, the lifeguard posts will fly purple warning flags, indicating "dangerous marine life" in the waters.
The man-of-war is not actually a jellyfish, but rather a cross between jellyfish and coral, "but a little different," said Jennifer Wheaton, a research program manager with the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg.
It's in the phylum Cnidaria, called siphonophore, and is a colonial animal, meaning it comprises more than one organism.
The man-of-war's gas-filled ridged bladder — usually an iridescent pale pink or blue — floats on the surface while a tangle of tentacles, some longer than 60 feet, twist below.
The tentacles are filled with stinging cells that carry a venom roughly 75 percent as potent as a cobra's.
However, the cells are microscopic, so they don't release as much toxin as a snake, said Jim Culter, senior scientist at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota. People hit by them experience great pain. Sometimes the residual effects — depending on the amount of toxin — can be long-lasting.
The creatures eat plankton and small fish. They are targeted by turtles.
Wheaton says they "contain one of the powerful poisons known in a marine animal" and have been known to kill people.
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Moeller says he feels okay now, but his body still itches. The 6-foot, 200-pound Seminole High School graduate proudly shows his battle wounds: three large tentacle burns that stretch across his chest, back and arms, and a baseball-sized burn near his left arm pit.
Moeller, who lives in St. Petersburg, said he initially didn't want to seek help because he thought he was stung by a jellyfish. Two summers ago, he was hit by one and the pain subsided after 20 minutes.
"This was a little different," he said, chuckling.
As for the man-of-war, which was a little smaller than a football: After Moeller was stung, another lifeguard slapped on a pair of gloves, bagged it and took it to the hospital.
Officials there say the "remains were disposed of."