By Patricia B. Dwyer
It seems every summer stingrays flock to San Diego’s coastline to ruin beachgoers’ days and stress out the lifeguards. But these coastal critters most likely see the season as more of a warzone than we do.
“The stingray is a cool guy — he’s just hanging out in the shallow water, enjoying the sunshine,” Justin Baar, lead surf instructor at the Mission Bay Aquatic Center, says to his surf class of 9 and 10-year-olds.
“And what would you do if Andre the Giant came and stepped on your face while you were getting some sun? You’d smack him!”
This year’s count hasn’t begun to near last year’s tally of stingray incidents — which include a one-day surge last summer at La Jolla Shores, but the local water temperature is reaching into the high 60s and the months of potential stingray mayhem are just around the corner.
As tourists eye the water’s edge apprehensively, there a few tips that can make a tromp into the shore break all the more enjoyable.
n The stingray shuffle works: Something so simple sounds like an aged wives’ tale, but the motion actually sends vibrations through the sand that lets a stingray know something is approaching and to clear the scene.
“We are coming out of nowhere and they are just sort of hanging out,” said Kristin Evans, education director at Birch Aquarium.
High stepping through the shore break, which is the most common and intuitive way of entering the surf, is actually the best way to sneak up on a stingray.
• Don’t pee on it!: A lot of times when someone who has never been stung by a stingray before has their first encounter, they get their ocean creatures confused and think they should pee on their stingray wound. This is the arguable remedy for a jellyfish sting and has nothing to do with the barb of a stingray. Don’t do it!
• Hot, hot heat: The toxin released by a stingray’s barb is protein-based and causes involuntary cramping of the muscles closest to the location of the sting. This cramping is what spurs the pain associated with a stingray wound.
Luckily, simple heat breaks down this toxin and is the fastest and most effective form of relief.
“We generally immerse their foot in extremely hot water, or in as hot of water as they can stand,” said lifeguard Lt. Nick Lerma. “This break down the toxins in about an hour period, and once the pain subsides you stop treatment.”
• Stingrays don’t migrate to our coastline: There is no concrete research that suggests stingrays migrate to the San Diego coastline every summer. Rather, it’s more likely that people are the ones doing the seasonal migration and crowd the stingrays in their natural habitats.
• Additional risks: There are always a few tales of a stingray’s barb breaking off into someone’s foot, or a wound getting a massive secondary infection floating around. But these are just tales.
“They can certainly give an infection, but I think two or three times in 20 years have I seen a barb break off,” said Lerma.
There is nothing about the bacteria on a stingray’s barb that is particularly infectious that separates it from any other wound a person might incur. General first-aid precautions should be taken, but nothing beyond that is required in most cases.