Lifeguards are reminding beach-goers to do the stingray shuffle to avoid a beach injury even more painful than a sunburn: the sting from a stingray. Often found in Southern California oceans and bays, stingrays are common in waters such as La Jolla Shores, where waves are gentle and the sandy bottom allows them to bury themselves and look for food.
And thus far this summer, said La Jolla Shores Sgt. Gavin McBride, lifeguards are seeing about 10 stings a day. “We’ve had days where are 50 stings across San Diego,” he said.
“Last weekend, we had over 30 stingray victims report to us, mostly in La Jolla Shores and Blacks Beach,” lifeguard Lt. Andy Lerum told The San Diego Union-Tribune. “When we see the surf drop, the water temperature go up and the sun come out, we are going to see more rays.”
The only way for beach-goers to avoid this injury, McBride said, is to do the stingray shuffle (and “hope for the best”): Move slowly through the shallows, with each step kicking up the sand below the surface. If a stingray senses the shuffling sand, it will typically disperse. This advisory is in effect any time a swimmer or surfer can touch the ocean bottom. People riding boogie boards or surfboards are advised to swirl their toes through the shallows before stepping down.
Lerum added that some people use walking sticks to stir the sand or throw shells, rocks “or anything that would scare a fish away,” ahead of them.
Further, sting rays will not be as present in crowded areas, as they do not like to be disturbed and will likely have already left.
McBride explained stingrays are bottom feeders who bury themselves in the sand looking for food. This makes them hard to see, but they will only sting if they are stepped on. The SeaWorld website reports they like to eat worms, clams, oysters, snails, shrimp, small fish and squid.
Because of their size in relation to humans, people are often stung in the foot or other lower extremities.
How it happens
“A stingray’s tail has a barb at the base made of cartilage, which contains serotonin,” he said. “When it stings you, it creates a laceration, which hurts; and it injects the serotonin into your bloodstream, which causes a lot of pain, so it’s a double effect.”
He added that it is rare for the barb to break off in the skin, but if it does, medical intervention from a hospital would be required.
Serotonin, known as a “happy chemical” when properly regulated in the body, can cause aggressive nerve pain when injected into the bloodstream.
Treatment for a sting
“The only way to treat a sting is by soaking the affected area in hot water to encourage the release of serotonin, but the body has to metabolize the poison to fully get it out of your system,” he said.
“The average amount of time it takes a person to metabolize is 45-90 minutes. The litmus test for us is if the person is still in pain when they take their foot (or affected area) out of the hot water. You’ll know the poison is gone when the pain becomes manageable rather than severe, but you’ll feel it the rest of the day.”
The La Jolla Shores lifeguard tower has treatment equipment for stingray injuries, and McBride advises those with concerns to ask lifeguards where it is safe to swim.