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Taking away the jellyfish sting

The next time you head to the beach, make sure and stick Aaron Kampe’s little black bottle in your bag.

Called Sting Away, it promises immediate relief from the pain that jellyfish and sea lice can bring. If it is a Portuguese man o’ war that caused your problem, he has a solution for that too.

Spoiler alert for anyone who thought that “a golden shower” was the answer: it doesn’t work.

“I remember being in grad school and asking if there was any truth to the method,” said Mr Kampe, a Bermudian lecturer in the biological sciences department of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

“It turns out it’s a terrible idea because the little stinging cells in jellyfish stings, they’re like microscopic harpoons and when you brush up against a jellyfish tentacle it will discharge that harpoon and shoot it into your skin. A lot of those harpoons just kind of sit on the surface of your skin and they don’t shoot the harpoons in until you brush it or you touch it, which is why it’s not a good idea to touch it. It’s a much better idea to rinse it away.

“But if you pee on it the urea is slightly acidic and it causes those harpoons to discharge and makes the sting far worse, which is really hilariously ironic considering that’s the method that everybody thinks that they’d be brave enough to use.”

Mr Kampe left the island with his parents for the US sometime around the age of five.

“One of the most impactful childhood memories I have is I was snorkelling with my mom out towards Nonsuch Island. When you’re little, everything’s gigantic. We were just swimming along snorkelling, holding hands, and I remember looking up and, maybe about two or three metres from us, there was this gigantic jellyfish. Now in retrospect there’s no telling how large it actually was. It probably was like ten inches wide but in my brain it’s three feet.

“I think it kind of instilled in me a couple of things: one to always be aware of your surroundings when you’re out snorkelling but another thing is, I was constantly paranoid about jellyfish after that – which is funny because we didn’t even run into it.”

By the time he was in high school he would return to the island to see family at least twice a year. On every trip to the beach he packed a numbing solution, “just in case”.

“A lot of times it was just the most unremarkable thing you could think of,” Mr Kampe said. “They have this spray for when your dogs are itching that kind of numbs the spot and so I would bring something that had a numbing agent in it.”

He didn’t think anything of it until he joined the University of North Carolina and taught “an older gentleman who had retired and come back to college out of interested boredom”.

“He was telling me this story of how he started his businesses and he was like, ‘Do you have any product ideas?’”

Mr Kampe told him about his sting treatment; the man suggested he put it on the market.

“I was like, ‘I have no idea how to sell anything. I’m a biologist.’”

Mr Kampe’s student convinced him he could.

“He had a hilarious story about how he met a woman who was responsible for the T-shirts and hats for the Boston Marathon. She was saying how they couldn’t find anybody who supplied shirts and he said, ‘Oh that’s what I do.’ It wasn’t true at all. So he had to figure out a way to create a bunch of shirts and hats for the Boston Marathon. This man sold 50,000 shirts and was not in the shirt-making business.

“That kind of gave me the confidence. I said, ‘I certainly don’t know much about the business side of things I’m just a scientist. But I’ll give it a go.’”

His wife Brittany, an interior designer, came up with the product label and together, they scoured the internet to see if anything like Sing Away existed.

“Strangely enough – and this happens quite often according to a really interesting book I was reading called The Evolution of Everything – product ideas tend to come simultaneously, especially for patented products.

“I read a really cool blip in the book about how there were ten other patents filed for telephones the same month that Alexander Graham Bell filed his; which is really wild. But there wasn’t any competitor at the time and we thought, ‘Let’s figure out how to make a product.’”

As it turned out, it was much easier than he had anticipated. The answers to his biggest hurdles were all on the internet.

“What I tell people about Sting Ray – and it always cracks me up – is that it’s the least surprising thing on the planet. It blows my mind it wasn’t an already saturated niche because it’s got something to numb the pain, it’s got an anti-inflammatory in there. And yeah, there’s a couple little neat compounds to shut down the way the stinging cells work.”

Aware that warm water helped ease the pain associated with stings, he decided to put his product in a black bottle.

“So you can just plop it beside your beach bag in the sun and it’s always warm. It always heats up just in case you need it.

“It has a twist top open and then you essentially aim it at the sting and spray it. It’s a heavy enough stream to where it rinses away the stinging cells and leaves a residue behind [that immediately] shuts down the way the stinging cells function.”

Once on Amazon they were able to move their business out of their garage where they had been “mixing up giant vats and looking like some type of illegal operation”.

“That made all the difference in the world,” Mr Kampe said. “For a while we were even using our tub which ended up being hilarious because if you’d forget and end up getting in there shortly after to take a bath, your body would end up numb.

“Once we got on Amazon we got big enough that we needed employees. Our parents wanted something to do as retirees and we handed Sting Away over to them and other extended family members who are responsible for most of the hands-on operation.”

Their biggest market is Hawaii where “a ton of sand” filled with Portuguese man o’ war larvae was mistakenly shipped in.

“Now they’ve got a huge Portuguese man o’ war problem,” said Mr Kampe who has only been stung once, “a couple summers ago”, by sea lice while swimming at Church Bay.

Sting Away has also proven popular along the US Gulf Coast and Chesapeake Bay in Virginia “which actually has more jellyfish stings in the US than anywhere else”.

Having been in business for nearly a decade, getting the opportunity to sell Sting Away in Bermuda was an unexpected treat.

“It was really cool to come full circle,” said Mr Kampe who said PW Marine was surprised to learn that Sting Away had been created by a Bermudian.

“[It was] definitely a warm, fuzzy feeling.”

Look for Sting Away at PW Marine

Brittany and Aaron Kampe’s Sting Away is taking the pain out of jellyfish stings (Photograph by Catherine Burns)

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Published July 26, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated July 27, 2021 at 7:59 am)

Taking away the jellyfish sting

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