The Portuguese Man o’ War, also known as the Bluebottle, is a jellyfish-like marine invertebrate of the family Physaliidae. Despite its outward appearance, the Man o’ War is not a jellyfish, but a siphonophore. Siphonophorae differ from jellyfish in that they are not actually single creatures, but colonial organisms made up of many minute individuals called zooids. Each of these zooids is highly specialized, and, although structurally similar to other solitary animals, they are attached to one another and physiologically integrated to the extent that they are incapable of independent survival.
Man o’ Wars are found, sometimes in groups of 1,000 or more, floating in warm waters throughout the world’s oceans. They have no independent means of propulsion and either drift on the currents or catch the wind with their gas-filled bladders. To avoid threats on the surface, they can deflate their air bags and briefly submerge.
Their tentacles can extend 165 feet (50 meters) in length below the surface. They are covered with venom used to paralyze and kill fish and other small creatures. Portuguese Man o’ War are feared by swimmers and surfers because of their painful stings. The pain is caused by the discharge of a large number of stinging cells when the tentacles make contact with your body.
Bluebottles appear to light up because of a natural process called bioluminescence. It may draw attention to its venomous tentacles to scare off his predator – hungry loggerhead turtles.
One award-winning photographer has braved numerous agonizing encounters to capture these beautiful creatures on film. On numerous occasions the alien-like marine creatures wrapped their tentacles around Mathew Smith’s wrist and neck, which were not covered by his wetsuit. Smith spent 12 months at Bass Point Cove in New South Wales, Australia perfecting an over-underwater technique using a waterproofing camera case with a 45cm wide dome he designed. Through careful lighting, Smith’s iridescent photographs capture marine life in new and luminescent ways.
Photo of Mathew Smith at work by Warren Keelan
Matthew Smith was last year named Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year and BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year.
“For me one of the most wondrous parts of any dive is the moment that the water engulfs my mask as my head slips below the surface,” Mr Smith said.
“I think it’s the suspense of the unknown of what lies beneath, and the thought of what alien creatures I might encounter. That is what draws me to taking half-over/half-underwater images. I try to convey to the viewer that majestic feeling in a picture format, to create a window into another universe.”
To see more of Mathew Smith’s amazing work go to
It’s astonishing to realize that the whole coordinated bluebottle creature – which floats, breeds, stings, hauls up and digests – is actually four sub-colonies, in one super-colony, of thousands of animals working together.