Sharks may be the apex predators in our oceans, but they’re by no means the deadliest sea creature. Last year, 11 people lost their lives in shark attacks, but estimates suggest that between 50 and 100 people die every year from encounters with the box jellyfish.
Appearances can be deceiving, and many of the deadliest ocean creatures look harmless or even inviting.
Prepare yourself for a few surprises as we uncover the secrets of the world’s most dangerous sea creatures, starting with the less harmful ones first and building up to the really deadly contenders.
10 Most Dangerous Sea Creatures in the Ocean
Sharks rarely attack humans, especially when considering how much time we spend in the water together. Nevertheless, large species like the great white and tiger shark do pose a threat to bathers, surfers, and divers, especially when the visibility is poor.
Most shark attacks occur relatively close to the beach and are usually a case of misidentification. These “hit-and-run” attacks are rarely fatal. In the Florida Museum of Natural History’s yearly worldwide shark attack summary for 2021, there were just 11 deaths out of 137 shark-human interactions.
There are 12 recognized species of Pterois or lionfish, all of which can be characterized by their bright, warning coloration and spiky fin rays. Native to the Indo-Pacific region, two invasive lionfish species are now causing havoc in the Caribbean and Mediterranean seas.
With no known predators, the lionfish consumes vast quantities of invertebrates, mollusks, and small fish. The lionfish’s “venomous dorsal, anal, and pelvic spines” deter most potential predators and are responsible for its inclusion in our list of the most dangerous sea creatures.
Lionfish aren’t aggressive, but their spines contain a nasty neuromuscular toxin that’s not dissimilar to cobra venom. Symptoms following a lion-fish sting include tenderness, swelling, and a serious injury at the wound site. These symptoms usually last for around hours, but in severe cases, can go on for up to 30 days.
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A sting that involves multiple spines increases the possibility of infection and causes additional symptoms, such as abdominal pain, sweating, and changes in heart rate.
Lionfish stings are rarely fatal, although someone who’s been exposed to repeated stings may “experience anaphylactic reactions upon subsequent envenomation.”
I’ve caught endless pufferfish off South Africa’s East Coast and am always cautious when unhooking them. Despite their almost cute appearance, pufferfish are the second most poisonous vertebrate in the world.
Some varieties of pufferfish measure just one inch in length yet contain enough toxin to kill up to 30 adult humans. Pufferfish contain tetrodotoxin, a substance that is 1,200 more poisonous than cyanide. Fortunately, it doesn’t just leach from their skin but is contained within their liver and sex organs.
That doesn’t stop some people from eating them, however. Only trained chefs are allowed to prepare the Japanese delicacy fugu, although many try, and fail, to prepare it themselves. Between 2006 and 2015, 10 people died after eating pufferfish that they’d prepared themselves.
According to the licensed chef, Yoshitaka Takahashi, “The hardest part is ensuring the parts that can be eaten are absolutely clean.”
There is no known antidote to tetrodotoxin which, if ingested, causes localized numbness around the mouth, nausea, salivation, and vomiting. These indications usually occur within 45 minutes of consuming the pufferfish. In severe cases, these symptoms will continue to worsen, causing widespread paralysis, loss of consciousness, and respiratory failure.
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Known as the pussycats of the ocean, the stingray couldn’t look less intimidating. Since Steve Irwin’s unfortunate demise in 2006, however, the whole world’s become aware of just how dangerous they can be.
The Australian conservationist and TV personality died after a serrated barb from the tail of a stingray penetrated his heart.
A stingray’s venom causes extreme pain and swelling at the wound site, but rarely proves fatal. There are around 1,500 stingray-related injuries in the US every year, most of which occur when a human accidentally steps on a submerged ray.
Stingrays cover themselves with sand so they can hide from potential predators. They are, therefore, often difficult to see. If a barb from a stingray’s tail embeds itself in your foot, it will cause a cut or puncture wound. The venom is found in the sheath that covers the stinger. If this venom enters the body, it causes severe pain and potential damage to muscles and tendons.
Depending on the severity, some stingray injuries can be treated at home, although the pain is so severe, most victims will seek some form of medical attention.
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#6 Flower Urchin
The flower urchin is an eye-catching and innocent-looking killer, but within its flower-like tentacles lies a potent toxin. These tentacles, known as globiferous pedicellariae, can inject a dangerous toxin if agitated or brushed against.
The potency of the venom is related to the size of the pedicellariae that administered it. Any sting from a flower urchin will cause pain and paralysis.
In 1930, a Japanese marine biologist Tsutomu Fujiwara got 7 or 8 flower urchin pedicellariae stuck in his finger. He experienced instant and excruciating pain at the site and, soon afterward, started to feel giddy and experience respiratory difficulties. His lips, tongue, and eyelids were also paralyzed, making it difficult for him to speak.
These symptoms started to diminish after about 15 minutes and, an hour later, they had all disappeared, except the facial paralysis.
Considered the most dangerous sea urchin in the world, the flower urchin can kill a human, but not with its toxin. Instead, the debilitating pain, “muscular paralysis, breathing problems, numbness, and disorientation can result in accidental drowning.”
#5 Sea Snakes
There are over 50 different species of sea snakes, all of which are highly venomous. Although they are usually shy rather than aggressive, sea snakes will bite if startled or threatened. The Dubois sea snake is the most venomous, and contains a potent neurotoxin that causes respiratory problems and “paralysis of the diaphragm and skeletal muscles.”
Compared to their terrestrial cousins, sea snakes have very small teeth, so a human can be bitten without realizing it. It’s only once the first symptoms kick in that they become aware of the severity of their situation.
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A bite from a sea snake may look like little more than a pinprick, but within three hours, the victim will be suffering the following symptoms:
- Painful muscles
- Aching joints
- Blurred vision
- Difficulty speaking and swallowing
- Excessive saliva production
A bite from a sea snake is potentially fatal, although the overall death rate is just 3%. The quicker a victim receives professional medical care and an anti-venom, the better their chances of survival.
#4 Cone Snail
Snails are amongst the last creatures you’d expect to take the title of the most deadliest sea animal in the world. Within their patterned shells, however, these innocuous creatures guard a deadly secret.
Cone snails live near coral reefs in tropical water like those found in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Cone snails use a sharp proboscis in their mouths to deliver a lethal sting to their prey. It then draws its prey back towards it using a sharp barb situated on the end of the proboscis. “Once the fish is completely paralyzed, the cone snail expands its mouth and swallows it whole.”
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Of course, cone snails don’t prey on humans, but their attractive shells often draw people to them and get stung while handling them.
A study published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information identifies the initial symptoms of a cone snail sting as pain or numbness at the wound site. These worsen quickly, and victims will start to experience “generalized muscle paralysis, respiratory failure, cardiovascular collapse, and coma.”
The NCIB also notes, “If a patient is untreated, death is rapid and often occurs within one to five hours.”
My husband was unfortunate enough to be stung by a stonefish. He lived to tell the tale but has never forgotten the extreme pain he experienced at the time. The stonefish that stung him measured less than two inches in length but left him reeling in pain for several days.
The most venomous fish in the world, the stonefish uses its venom to escape predation. As its name suggests, the stonefish is almost indistinguishable from the stone and rocks found on the seafloor. It uses its impressive camouflage to ambush its prey but is often stood on accidentally by unsuspecting humans.
When that happens, it triggers a potentially deadly response in the stonefish. Popping up its dorsal 13 spines, it injects venom from the sacs situated at the base of each spine. The effect is agonizing and, within minutes, your foot will swell up to over three times its normal size.
Treatment for a stonefish sting starts with immersing the affected limb in very hot water. This process deactivates some components of the venom after which an anti-venom can be administered.
Although stonefish stings are rarely fatal, they can cause shock, respiratory problems, nausea, and vomiting, as well as fainting, delirium, and paralysis.
#2 Blue-Ringed Octopus
The blue-ringed octopus doesn’t get much bigger than the size of a golfball and yet contains enough venom to kill more than 20 people.
Unlike the pufferfish, which doesn’t actively use its venom for anything, the blue octopus harvests it on purpose and uses it to paralyze its prey.
These octopus species store bacteria collected from the ocean in their salivary glands. There the bacteria secrete tetrodotoxin. Using its beak to penetrate its prey’s shell, the octopus then injects venom by spitting into its victim. This process paralyzes its prey almost instantly.
Should a blue-ringed octopus bite a human, the tetrodotoxin in the saliva will have the same effect as it does on its prey – paralysis. Within five to 10 minutes of being bitten, you’ll start to experience a tingling sensation or numbness at the site of the attack.
This leads to difficulty breathing and swallowing and then to “flaccid paralysis,” in which all your smooth muscles go limp. Although this won’t affect your heart, it will attack your diaphragm, stopping you from breathing.
The life-threatening symptoms usually last for between four to 10 hours, after which the victim shows rapid signs of improvement. Despite the severity of the symptoms and toxicity of the venom, only three people have died from a blue-ringed octopus bite.
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#1 Box Jellyfish
The tiny box jellyfish, also known as the sea wasp, is barely visible to the naked eye yet can kill an adult in less than three minutes. The Irukandji jellyfish is one of 51 different species of box jellyfish and, although it has an average size of just one cubic centimeter, is just as fatal as its 10-foot-long cousin – Chironex fleckeri.
A study of the Chironex fleckeri found that its venoms are bioactive protein mixtures that attack different parts of the box jellyfish’s victim. One causes pain, another attacks the red blood cells, while another “produces intense muscle spasms” that lock the heart into a permanently contracted state.
This combined assault on the victim makes box jellyfish stings difficult to treat. As the heart is contracted, CPR and defibrillators won’t work.
In April last year, a 17-year-old Australian died after being stung by a Chironex fleckeri box jellyfish off the northern tip of Australia. A few months later, a nine-year-old Israeli boy died after being stung off Koh Phangan island in Thailand. The regulatory of these incidents reinforces just how dangerous these jellyfish are.
What is the Deadliest Sea Creature?
With a death rate of 50 to 100 people a year, box jellyfish is by far the deadliest sea creature. Its complex venom can kill a person in less than five minutes, making it one of “the most deadly in the world,” according to National Geographic.
Although the box jellyfish is the deadliest sea creature, it still falls far behind the deadliest creature on earth. The mosquito is responsible for around 750,000 human deaths each year, making the box jellyfish’s 100 look like a drop in the ocean.
What is the Most Dangerous Animal in the Ocean?
While the box jellyfish isn’t aggressive, it is the most dangerous animal in the ocean. The tiny Irukandji box jellyfish’s body is about the size of a sugar cube, which makes it tough to spot in the waves.
Tiny though it is, it has 60 potentially fatal tentacles drifting up to a meter behind it, making this dangerous ocean creature difficult to avoid.
Whenever we think of dangers in our seas, our minds tend to drift immediately to the shark. This article proves that there are many other sea creatures we should fear more than the great white. The deadliest ocean creatures aren’t those that scare us the most, but those with toxins that can cause us great harm.
The box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, and even the humble stonefish don’t attack humans on purpose but, if we venture into their natural habitat, the chances of us bumping into each other increase.
Most people survive an interaction with one of the most dangerous ocean creatures, but they never forget them and show a lot more caution when entering the sea after they’ve experienced one.
Nicky is a British adventurer and animal lover who spends her time exploring the natural world and writing about her experiences. Whether on horseback, underwater, running, hiking or just standing with a fishing rod in hand, she embraces everything her adopted home of South Africa has to offer.