EP word of the week (#51): alforreca

If you spend some time in Portuguese beaches this summer, you’ll probably run into a few stock characters: people doing regular beach stuff (swimming, getting a tan and enjoying the sun, playing football, volleyball, or beach paddleball); people doing unusual beach stuff, and the usual animals you’d find in this area, like seagulls, bivalves, and jellyfish washed ashore.

In Portugal, a single jellyfish is called [a] alforreca, while in Brasil they’re called [a] água-viva. Both variants share a name in common, [a] medusa, which can be used for the common jellyfish you see on the shore or any other member of the jellyfish family with long, lean limbs (the name itself is a reference to the snake-tentacled head of Medusa from Greek mythology).

As I’m sure you know, jellyfish tentacles have stinging cells, so you shouldn’t come anywhere near them. If you see they’re stuck in sand, you can try creating a well of sand behind and around the animal (from a safe distance) in the hopes the extra current around and behind them will help dislodge it.

Important Note: Portuguese beaches (especially the ones in the west, directly facing the Atlantic) are sometimes hit by a different kind of cnidarian, the Portuguese man o’ war, known here as [a] caravela-portuguesa or simply as [a] caravela (which was a type of sailed ship the Portuguese used during the Age of Discovery).

They look similar to jellyfish, but they’re actually a colony of several different organisms; in any case, they are distinguished from alforrecas by their blue tentacles and the undullating shape of their floater (see two photos above for a comparison). Be extremely careful if you find one of these washed ashore! Their tentacles can also cause extreme dermatitis and the stings can be fatal if the body reacts badly to the inflow of venom present in the stinging cells. Do not come even close to them if you find one – the cell can still sting you even after the animals are dead.

2 thoughts on “EP word of the week (#51): alforreca

  1. Yuliya July 13, 2016 / 3:13 pm

    Thank you for warning. Are these creatures numerous? What is the chance to meet them on a beach or in water?


    • luisdomingos July 13, 2016 / 4:15 pm

      You’re welcome! The incidence of alforrecas (jellyfish) may vary from place to place, but they’re still a common occurence. Like I mentioned in the article, they’re usually translucent/transparent, but they’re easily spottable when they wash ashore. After jellyfish are spotted (especially if they’re numerous), beaches with lifeguard protection may then adjust their safety parameters to make sure people don’t go in the water (they do this via flags of different colo[u]rs: green = ok to swim, yellow = proceed with care, red = shouldn’t go in the water).

      Regarding the Portuguese man o’war, and despite its name (which, like I mentioned, is a historical reference to a type of ship), it is not that common since it usually prefers tropical or subtropical ocean climates. That said, warmer ocean conditions may attract them towards the coast of Portugal – since some sightings in our coast have been established, it’s always advisable to proceed with care if you happen find a blue tentacled animal on the beach and find someone who can help with its proper removal.


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