I was introducing our friends nine-year-old son, Matt, to the
wonders of snorkeling in the ocean, during a three-family camp-out in
Key Largo, Florida. Now, I have been diving since 1970 and have an instructor
certification. Granted, I may have missed something, but in all my training
and reading, I had never been made aware of the fact that some sponges
affect skin in a toxic manner. Well, as it turns out, they do!
Matt and I made a beach entry in calm water with excellent visibility
and began checking out the underwater scene in the shallows. We explored
mangrove roots and pilings, but saw few fish. After awhile, I decided
wed better head back toward the beach.
As I was checking out our surroundings, I noticed a large buoy marking
shallow water to the right of the entrance to the marina. I thought
we might see some fish there, so we headed for it before turning back.
Unfortunately, there were no fish around the buoy, but there was an array of bright orange sponges decorating its underside. Then, I saw italmost directly beneath the buoy, completely separate and resting on the bottom, was a sponge about half the size of a soccer ball. Ah-ha, I thought, what a nice trophy to bring back.
Never suspecting anything might be amiss, I dived down and scooped
up Mr. Sponge in my ungloved hands, then headed back to the beach with
Matt beside me. When we got to the beach, I raised my trophy up for
all to see, proudly declaring, Look what I found! Instead
of a chorus of oohs and ahs, there was only silence. Finally, someone
asked, What is it? So I brought it ashore and explained
that it was a sponge, a living colony of small animals. Both Matt and
my daughter, Dorinda, poked at it a bit, and then I threw my treasure
back into the sea.
It was time to head to the showers. While showering, I began to have
an odd and painful feeling in both hands, a feeling that I could not
wash away, no matter how hard I tried. It was as though a thousand needles
were piercing my hands everywhere that I had touched the sponge.
When I returned to our camp, both Matt and Dorinda wanted to know if I had a tingling in my hands. Maybe to them it was a tingling, but to me it was much more. Yes, I said, not wanting to worry anyone, Ive got it, too.
By the next day, the piercing needles had evolved into a raging itch.
Benadryl pills and cortisone cream didnt seem to help, but I kept
the treatment going anyway.
Sometime the following day, the itch began to subside into an aching
and burning sensation. My palms were inflamed and swollen to the point
that I could no longer make a fist.
After a lengthy period of treatment, which included wearing vinyl gloves
over my ointment-covered hands, I thought I was finally about to see
the end of the affair of the sponge. But, I noticed that the skin on
the tip of my little finger on my right hand was loose. Then the skin
on the entire last joint of my little finger came loose! As it separated
and peeled back, the end of my pinky finger seemed to be protruding
from a ruptured glove. Each day afterward, the skin began to slough
off a different finger and hang there in shreds. People would look at
my hands and gasp, How did you burn your hands? I wanted
to say, Its not that. I have leprosy. But I didnt.
Seemingly healed, today, I sincerely hope that was the last stage of unpleasantness I will ever have to endure as a result of my folly in picking up Mr. Sponge with gloveless hands. The good news is that Matt and Dorinda had only minor problems from their brief encounters with what Dorinda refers to as Mean Old Mr. Sponge. In the future, I shall be entirely content to look at sponges, admire their pretty colors, and maybe even take a picture or two, but thats as close as I care to get to my old nemesis.