by Whit Gibbons

August 2, 2015

A statement in a book I have about sharks says, "Victims of stingray wounds often describe it as the most painful thing they've ever experienced." My daughter Susan would agree. In fact, when she spoke of her encounter with a stingray during a beach vacation, she made a similar statement, adding, "and I've experienced childbirth."

She had stepped on a large, unseen stingray in shallow water in the ocean surf. Couple the slashing of a large gash to the ankle from a razor-sharp saw blade with the injection of powerful venom, and the result is a double dose of agony.

I can offer a personal observation of the painful experience (except for the childbirth comparison) having once dealt with a stingray spine being jabbed into my hand while I was untangling the ray from a fish net. Trapped animals rarely seem to appreciate their would-be rescuers' good intentions.

My injury was self-inflicted: I was actually holding the tail of a slippery stingray with one hand while trying to free its long, saw-toothed barb from nylon mesh. My daughter's sting was a so-called legitimate one as she unknowingly placed herself in harm's way.

The reason I chose a book on sharks to find out what professional ichthyologists have to say about stingrays is because sharks and rays, fishes with cartilaginous skeletons, are placed in a zoological class together, separately from the bony fishes. The ray that most often stings people along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts is the Atlantic stingray.

Though these big brown pancakes look like part of the sandy bottom when they lie perfectly still in shallow water, a stingray 2 feet in diameter is an awesome spectacle when swimming. Their pectoral fins look like wings slowly flapping, as if they were flying through the water.

Atlantic stingrays can deliver a memorable injury but one that is seldom if ever fatal. Some stingray stings can be lethal, however, as shown by the death of celebrity Steve Irwin, the self-styled Crocodile Hunter. The video showing exactly what happened during the incident on the Australian Great Barrier Reef that resulted in his death has not been released. As far as I know, officials have not published the species of ray. Nor have they released information about why it responded with such devastating defensive behavior.

A stingray's barb lies flat, on top of its long tail. When a predator attacks the stingray, or someone steps on it, the tail is whipped upward with the barb turned at a right angle to the tail. The weapon is like a two-sided serrated blade with a needle-thin point, and the blade is encased in a sheath that holds a reservoir of venom. When the barb goes in, the sheath breaks, releasing the venom. The barb is quickly withdrawn, but the serrations are now facing backward, slicing away while venom is released.

A stingray never behaves in a hurtful way unless it is responding to a perceived menace. Sharks will occasionally make predatory attacks on people when mistaking a swimmer as some form of natural prey. Stingrays strike people only when they feel threatened. Being stepped on is the most common cause of attack. Being taken off a fish hook is apparently another.

One approach for avoiding stingray hits in shallow sandy areas is to do the "stingray shuffle," sliding your feet forward to nudge any bottom dwellers out of the way. Of course, who wants to go to the ocean and shuffle around in the water? Fortunately, stingray venom has a simple antidote. Soaking the injured body part in water as warm as you can stand it neutralizes the venom for some reason, reducing the pain. You still may need to get a tetanus shot.

The most helpful advice about how to deal with stingrays at the beach, aside from suggesting you stay on shore under your umbrella, is to do the stingray shuffle and know the shortest route to a bathtub full of hot water.

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