THE STEALTHY ASSASSINS OF THE EAST ATLANTIC
That’s Weever. Not Weaver. Some people really seem to care about this, but fair play, it’s the fish, not the bird.
Now the UK may not have bacterial infested coral, sea urchins, hospitalising jelly fish, Bull sharks, White Pointers or generalised tropical water badness, but European waters are home to one of the nine Weever fish species. I give you the Lesser Weever.
These little silver/brownish critters, maximum 15 cm long when adult, can be found under the sole of your non-boot wearing foot in shallow coastal waters. They have no swim bladder, so they can sink to the sea bed when not swimming and bury themselves in sand. All that’s on show are their eyes and a series of dorsal spines containing a pretty potent toxin (as do the small spines on their gills). Here they wait for the returning cold and tired surfer, with the specific intent (from personal experience) of making it really difficult to use your clutch foot when driving your van home.
Contrary to popular cornish belief, they don’t migrate here in the summer (or ‘commute’ as one surfer said!). They are in our waters year round travelling in and out with the tide, feeding off crustaceans and other small fish down to about 50m, but the number of reported incidents increases significantly in the summer due to the increased numbers of people in the surf, and the fact that people stop wearing boots. In reality, stepping on a Weever fish is rarely a serious injury, but can be severely painful and will make you wish is wasn’t low tide with a long walk up the beach.
You are very unlikely to see ‘the bullet that hits you’, your first knowledge of the Weever fish will be a sharp scratch underfoot as you wade through shallow water. Over the next minute or two you’ll fast realise that the pain is worsening, and your foot may subsequently develop redness and swelling, or areas of numbness. If this is the case and there is no obvious abrasion to your skin, it will most likely be the Weever fish as few other injuries follow this pattern in tidal sandy East Atlantic waters. Ideally, you need to get out of the sea and submerse your foot in as-hot-as-bearable water as soon as possible, as this destroys the heat sensitive protein based toxins and helps alleviate symptoms. There is obvious risk of further injury here from burning, especially if you’ve already taken pain killers, so be warned and take care.
Time in the hot water varies according to who you ask, but the UK National Poisons Information Service (a site used by Doctors that advises on random poisons) recommends 30 – 90 minutes, or until the pain is easing, and that this heat treatment can be initiated to some effect up to 2 hours after the initial injury. Hot flannels are an alternative if immersing the site of the injury is impractical. If in peak season on a main beach, then the best option here is to head up to the lifeguard hut as they see more Weever fish injuries than anyone. They are very experienced, and chances are they will have already put the kettle on as they see you hobbling up the beach. Out of season or in remote areas, tried techniques include knocking on car doors for sweet old ladies with a thermos of coffee and a handy sandwich tupperware box, if it’s not too hot to drink it should be the perfect temperature! If no hot water is available, simple pain killers and anti-inflammatories are the way forward, safe in the knowledge that the worst of the pain should start to reside in a few hours, though pain can remain for 24 hours or longer depending on the sensitivity of the area stung. Rarely symptoms may be more severe, including headache, fever, chills, delirium, nausea, vomiting and dizziness.
Photo Copyright, Richard “Tiny” Daw. With kind permission.
The spines usually stay with the Weever fish for its next malicious attack, but rarely they snap and remain imbedded in the skin. This can prolong inflammation and increasing the chances of subsequent infection, so it’s worth a visual inspection of the wound for foreign bodies. This is especially important if the site of the injury overlies a joint. See our Urchin Injuries article if you see a spine fragment after inspection for information on removal, as the same principles apply.
As always, if concerned then it is best to seek medical advice in person, especially if the pain is uncontrolled, the swelling is worsening, an area of redness is spreading up your leg over time or you are becoming unwell.
If the pain gets really bad, take solace from the fact that at least you didn’t have something several hundred times your body weight step on your head today. The Weever’s day was worse.
Author: Dr Doug Orr
Article published in UK Carve magazine June 2012
There is no substitution for being examined and treated by a medical professional. The intention of the articles on this website is to inform anyone who reads it of medical issues encountered on surf trips.
This website is designed to provide general practical information not specific medical advice.