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Guest commentary: Forgetting the ‘stingray shuffle’ can be painful

Charles Bower (center) recovers from a stingray sting at La Jolla Shores.
(Courtesy of Charles Bower)

Swimming from The Marine Room down La Jolla Shores, I noticed recently that the stingrays are back, their petticoat frills kicking up sand as they scutter away from my looming shadow.

Ever been stung by one?

It really hurts.

From time to time, round stingrays the size of a small plate, color roughly of kelp fronds, edge into the surf line at strand beaches all along our gorgeous Southern California coast, occasionally turning up in droves.

“We see them in highest numbers in the summer months,” said Marine Safety Sgt. Robert Veria up at Encinitas. “But the stingrays are always out there and they’ll come in any period when there’s little surf.”

At La Jolla Shores, the water’s usually clear enough to see smelt and corvina inside the surf line with guitar fish, leopard sharks and bottom-munching bat rays just beyond it. In these times, stingrays, when they gather near the beach, are easier to spot. But sometimes in the holiday season, algae colors up the water, making them impossible to see. And that’s when people mostly get stung.

“I’ve seen upward of 60 people stung in a day,” Veria said.

Stingrays sting when they’re stepped on. To avoid stepping on them, bathers and surfers are advised to do the “stingray shuffle,” which means kicking along the bottom when we wade instead of lifting our feet.

But it’s hard to always remember to do this. The day I was stung, 70 other people had also forgotten.

When you step on a stingray, it feels like rubbery kelp until a stubby tail lashes around your foot with a razor-sharp barb on it that cuts you.

Oouucchh!!

You hobble to shore with a bleeding slash on your foot and someone may advise you to go to the lifeguard station. You have to get there quick because the slashing barb also injects poison. Shortly, this poison, which doesn’t take effect immediately, starts to hurt like 10 bee stings at once.

“We wrap the foot tight to control bleeding, then soak it in a bucket of very hot water,” said Marine Safety Lt. Maureen Hodges of the San Diego Lifeguard Services Division.

The scalding water breaks down the poison protein. It takes about an hour — well, 90 minutes. Sometimes three hours. Despite groans of pain, the stingray club is quite convivial. But the water is painfully hot.

“It’s around 110 degrees Fahrenheit,” Hodges said, “which is as hot as a person can stand without burning the skin.”

During this time, the sting will really hurt, too, only in waves, and with each wave the pain may creep up your leg a bit more so that your knee begins to ache and you’ll think it’s going to move on into the rest of you.

But it doesn’t. Eventually, it subsides.

“It’s a puncture wound, like stepping on a nail,” Hodges said, “so lastly we advise people to make sure their tetanus shots are up to date.”

Stings take a couple of weeks to heal.

The scar on my foot reminds me that the Pacific Ocean, even at its playground edge, is wild.

Charles Bower is a writer and documentary filmmaker who lived in Windansea in La Jolla for seven years and now lives in El Cerrito. He often gets back to La Jolla to swim, enjoy the beaches and ocean and eat shark sandwiches and clam chowder.