Touch Me Not

By Kenneth B. Fouts

2001-03 Touch Me Not 2001-03 Touch Me Not By Kenneth B. Fouts • Illustration By Kim Wilson Brandt

I was introducing our friend’s 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 we’d 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 it—almost 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, “I’ve got it, too.”

By the next day, the piercing needles had evolved into a raging itch. Benadryl pills and cortisone cream didn’t 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, “It’s not that. I have leprosy.” But I didn’t.

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 that’s as close as I care to get to my old nemesis.