Diving provides us with opportunities to observe and passively interact with the many amazing creatures of the sea. Most of these encounters result in experiences that are truly memorable for the diver, but in some rare circumstances we may manage to get ourselves injured.
Urchins are common in Hawaiian waters and are often seen by surfers, snorkelers and divers. Most diver injuries are accidental, such as a diver with poor buoyancy control accidentally landing on an urchin or a tired diver accidentally grabbing onto a stonefish. Both of these situations are easy to control by following safe diving practices and knowing your personal limitations. Sometimes the surge or an oblivious dive buddy may push you into one; it’s not alwasy the diver’s fault either.
One of the most common injuries our ocean-goers face is a patch of urchin spines, no longer attached to the critter but imbedded in their skin. This is a very easy injury to avoid, as urchins move veeeeeery sloooooowly while they graze upon algae on the reef. Frequently referred to as a “Hawaiian Tattoo,” the ink and even spine tips can remain in your skin for weeks or even months after the spines have broken off. Sometimes the lingering presence of the pigment gives a false impression that there are still spines under the skin.
Urchins with sharp spines are called wana (pronounce the “W” as a “V”) in Hawaii. The wana here have either long or short spines that are hollow, sharp, brittle and barbed. These spines are black or black and white banded and attached to the body of the animal by muscles in a ball-and-socket joint. Although they can control the spines to wave them at predators, they do not detach from their body or get shot like darts. These spines do not carry venom, but they can be as toxic as any other foreign protein that is traumatically introduced to your skin. Urchins do have tiny pincers called pedicellariae that cover their body, and although they can deliver a paralyzing toxin to small predators they are too small to pierce human skin.
We also have some harmless urchins in Hawaii like the bright red pencil urchin and shingle urchins.
Basic first aid for urchin puncture wounds is to soak in hot water to tolerance (113°F/45°C, be sure to test the temperature of the water on uninjured skin- don’t burn yourself). Remove any spines that are easily grasped with forceps or your fingers (sometimes fingers are easier to get out the really thin spines). Wana spines are made of calcite, very brittle, and can easily break off in wounds. Clean the area with soap and water and apply a sterile bandage.
Contrary to popular belief, neither urine nor vinegar will dissolve embedded spines! Never try to crush embedded spines, this only makes the injury worse. The body will usually absorb the spines (typically in less than 3 weeks) or the fragments will work themselves out of the skin. You can use an extracting salve to speed up this process, but do not try to remove spines that do not come out easily as this can cause more damage than the wound itself. Most wounds are fully healed in about a month.
It’s time to see a doctor if the urchin spine penetrates a joint or nerve, or if the wound shows any signs of infection such as redness, warmth, or pus formation. If the victim has generalized weakness, shortness of breath, or nausea and vomiting after a puncture they should be taken directly to an emergency room.
Probably the best way to avoid injuries of this nature is to practice excellent buoyancy control. By staying off of the bottom and avoiding accidental brushes against the reef and rocks you can easily avoid the most common cause of diver injuries.
Be aware of your surroundings when you dive. Know where you are in the water column in relation to other divers as well as the reef and the bottom. This is especially important at night or when you are taking photos. Be very careful where you place your hands or better yet, don’t use them to touch anything at all.
Streamlining your body as well as the gear you are wearing not only keeps it off of the reef, but it increases your efficiency which will help you to avoid fatigue. Tired divers are more likely to accidentally touch marine life that they don’t intend to.
Be prepared! Having a first aid kit that is well-stocked and ready to use is important! (I have a jar of black extracting salve in mine! Available at Whole Foods). The more you know about the marine environment and its animals, the greater your chances are for a safe a memorable dive.
Gloves can potentially offer a small amount of protection against urchin spines, but in reality, the spines will usually go right through your gloves and what’s worse is that divers who wear gloves are also more likely to touch the reef. Many dive locations ban the use of gloves and they are actually illegal in protected habitats like Molokini. Gloves should be worn when appropriate such as cold water or wreck diving.
Photographers, PLEASE avoid using the reef to stabilize yourself when taking photos!!!
In reality, the most hazardous marine life you are likely to encounter is yourself or one of your buddies. Most diver injuries are due to a lack of training or planning (not having emergency supplies or skills), skills (such as poor buoyancy control) or experience (not knowing the environment or being new to diving) and not hazardous marine life.
Want to improve your skills? Need some work on your buoyancy control? We offer several classes to help you with your quest! Rescue or Emergency First Response will give you more confidence in the event of an accident. The Peak Performance Buoyancy specialty can help you hone in your hover, and the Underwater Naturalist specialty can increase your awareness underwater and make you a more environmentally friendly diver. Call us today to continue your scuba education! Take only photos, leave only bubbles!
p.s. Thank you to the “tattood” divers who let me share their pain in this post!