Behind the scenes of Oscar-nominated NYAD with UH jellyfish sting expert 

Angel Yanagihara, world renowned box jellyfish expert and University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa assistant research professor, was portrayed in the Oscar-nominated film NYAD, which chronicles Diana Nyad’s inspiring feat. In 2013, at age 64, Nyad was the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage. Yanagihara, who is based at the UH Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology and the John A. Burns School of Medicine, offered her expertise during the historic swim, surveying the water for jellyfish and utilizing her patented Sting No More® cream to prevent and treat the effects of jellyfish stings. 

Below are excerpts from an article in Tudum by Netflix

When Diana Nyad sets out to make her epic Cuba-to-Florida swim in NYAD, she faces an array of challenges: tides, jellyfish, and her own stamina. It’s a punishing journey, but she’s determined to see it through. As played by Annette Bening, Nyad is a force of determination that cannot be resisted. 

Based on the story of Nyad’s real-life attempt to make the treacherous swim, NYAD was a powerful passion project for directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. Between getting technical details right, preparing actors for their soggy roles, and making sure the film channeled the real-life difficulty of the task ahead of its characters, Chin and Vasarhelyi had their work cut out for them.

Tudum spoke to the directors, as well as jellyfish expert Dr. Angel Yanagihara, about the on-screen and off-screen challenges involved in bringing the marathon swim to life.

What would a box jellyfish sting really feel like?

One of the many obstacles Nyad faces during her marathon swim is the jellyfish population of the Florida straits. A sting from a box jellyfish could end her attempt before it’s even begun. In one particularly harrowing sequence, Diana swims through a swarm of luminescent jellyfish, too exhausted to realize the danger she’s in. A moment later, the silence of the waves is broken by a piercing scream. 

“Stings by box jellies lead to immediate tissue destruction similar to an immediate wounding by a burn,” says Dr. Yanagihara of the University of Hawaii, who accompanied the real Diana Nyad on her 2013 swim. (She’s portrayed by Jeena Yi in the film.) A biochemist and diver in her own right, Yanagihara is deeply aware of the danger these creatures pose. “Inside the body, venom can rupture blood cells and lead to catastrophic histamine overload such that the lungs fill with fluid and hyperkalemia, which stops the heart,” she continues.

In other words? A sting wouldn’t feel very good. “The venom of the box jellyfish species is the fastest acting and most toxic of the known jellyfish,” Yanagihara says. “Box jellies have a different shape, can inflict far deeper stings, and have venom which is over a thousand times more damaging to our tissues. There have been many deaths due to box jelly stings.” During the actual 2013 swim, Dr. Yanigahara explains, she would often be in the water for hours at a time “constantly surveying the water column, both above and below the thermocline, using a red dive torch to identify the presence of box jellyfish.” Yanagihara also utilized her life-saving technology in the form of a cream that was used to prevent and treat the effects of stings. 

It’s no wonder jellyfish can be so deadly — they’ve been evolving for millions of years. “They belong to phylum Cnidaria, one of the three most ancient multicellular organism groups on the planet,” Yanagihara tells us. “These animals have been on Earth for 600 million years, long before plants and other animals, when the atmosphere was largely methane and carbon dioxide and oxygen was a trace gas. [They] will far outlive us on Earth.” Their populations are also increasing due to warming oceans caused by climate change, throwing off the balance of ocean ecosystems and fish populations.