Stingray alert: swimmers warned to watch their steps

By Pat Sherman

As coastal waters warm and the tide recedes, the flattened bodies of stingrays lie stealthily on the sandy shoreline, waiting for a small crustacean or fish to snack upon. Instead, what they often encounter is a human foot.

Invariably, the summer influx of beach-goers means a spike in stingray injuries, which, though not fatal, are extremely painful and could lead to infection if not treated properly.

On Sunday, San Diego lifeguards reported 39 stings off San Diego’s coastline, including five at Black’s Beach and 12 at La Jolla Shores.

“La Jolla Shores is a classic place for them (to gather),” said Nigella Hillgarth, executive director of the Birch Aquarium at Scripps. “In recent years we’ve seen an increase there. It’s a fairly sheltered, sandy beach. The gradual, sandy slope (provides) a nice place where they can just settle down and wait for something to eat.”

The stingray, a cartilaginous fish related to sharks, has one or more barbed stingers on the base of its tail. Though stingrays do not actively attack humans, they will sting if stepped on or brushed up against.

The combination of warmer water and a low tide produces more food for the stingrays, drawing them closer to shore, said San Diego lifeguard Lt. Andy Lerum.

“They’re bottom feeders, so they come in looking for little crabs and dead things floating around,” he said. “When the surf is down, they’re able to get in the shallower waters where they go feed.”

The notion of a stingray “attack” is a misnomer, Lerum said.

“When they get brushed up against or stepped on, they think we’re trying to do something to them, so their defensive action is to sting, just like a bee would,” he said.

Stingray barbs at the base of the tail may break off and lodge in a person’s flesh, though they rarely do, Hillgarth said.

“It’s a pretty good defense mechanism,” she said. “You’ve got a needle that you can aim at whatever is trying to attack you — it’s flexible. ... People often get stung on top of the foot or the ankle.”

As a precaution, Hillgarth suggests that those who are stung seek medical attention.

If stung and a lifeguard is present, he or she can assist, helping reduce the pain and prevent stingray toxins from spreading up the leg with hot water.

“We assess the situation, whether or not a stingee is having any anaphylactic shock or breathing problems associated with a stingray sting,” Lerum said. “We automatically alert paramedics when we see anybody having any of those symptoms.

“The best treatment for a stingray is to immerse your foot in extremely hot water — not to the point where it’s going to burn you — but to the point where the heat eliminates the proteins that are in the venom from doing more damage,” he said. “If you don’t put your foot in hot water, the pain will grow.”

The stingray shuffle

Lifeguards say the best way to prevent a sting is to shuffle your feet as you walk through the water, or toss small beach stones into the water ahead of you.

“Just like pounding your feet on a trail in the woods to shoo away snakes, you want to disrupt the sand as you’re walking,” Lerum said. “That will give them a heads-up that you’re in the area and they’ll swim away.”

Hillgrath said kayakers are often stung as they disembark. She suggests a careful landing, and checking the water around you before getting out of the kayak.

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