Is It Safe To Go Back In The Water?
By Kevin Franklin
THEY PATROL THE Sea of Cortez by the millions. Universally feared, they lurk in the shallow waters--especially at night when they come up to feed. Sharks treat them with respect and many terrified bathers refuse to enter the water if even a rumor of their presence is uttered.
For being the size of a large frying pan, stingrays carry a pretty big reputation. But any unfortunate person who's been lacerated by one knows full well why most folks do their best to avoid a stingray encounter.
Yar Petryszyn, University of Arizona curator of mammals and an old amigo of Out There adventures, has been stung several times. He's also been bitten by rattlesnakes, stung by scorpions and pulled knee ligaments, and he describes a stingray attack as several times more painful than anything he's ever experienced.
Out There beach bum Bernie Diffin, described by fellow tae kwon do martial artists (schooled in the ways of pain disbursement) as "one tough dude," was hit by a stingray last summer. He nearly crumpled in pain.
Fortunately, stingray scuffles are not the product of the animal's vicious demeanor.
Stingrays survive by scrounging food off the bottom of the sea says Donald Thomson, University of Arizona ecology and evolutionary biology professor. Thomson is a marine ichthyology specialist conducting research on stingray natural history. This is not an aggressive animal, Thomson says. The stingrays' "sting" is a purely defensive mechanism often put to use in repelling sharks and occasionally large groupers.
Generally speaking, if a stingray knows you're coming, it'll move out of the way. Thus came to be one of the most graceless dance steps of all time--the "stingray shuffle." If you shuffle your feet on the bottom as you move forward, you create an undersea commotion, which, even if it doesn't motivate the stingray to leave, increases your chances of bumping into its side. Unlike stepping unexpectedly on its back, the odds of a side encounter turning hostile are greatly reduced.
On the other hand, Diffin was stationary at the time of his attack. Which just goes to show there's no accounting for a pissed-off stingray.
Thomson suggests shoes might help in deflecting an attack, but a direct hit on the top or side of a light sneaker won't stop the sting. Heavy leather boots might work, but one must weigh the fear of being stung with the greater--and arguably more serious--risk of drowning.
The round, diamondback and bull's-eye stingrays are the most likely candidates for an unfortunate encounter. Round rays are the most common and will grow to about three feet. The diamond and bull's-eye get slightly larger, somewhere in the neighborhood of four feet wide.
For the layman, all three are different models of the same make: a vaguely round, flat, sandy-colored fish with a nuclear warhead strapped midway down its long, thin tail. The mechanics are such that the remaining section of free tail can squiggle violently to work the sting in deeper. Rather than equipped with an injection mechanism (as with rattlesnake fangs), the serrated stinger is covered with a poisonous membrane that comes apart in the wound.
The sting on a mid-size ray might be four inches long. Fortunately, the large adults with knife-like stings generally cruise through deeper water. Most human encounters are with juveniles.
The mother stingray gives birth to about 12 live stingrays in the spring. The five-inch-long buggers then head to shallow water in an attempt to avoid being eaten. Herein lies the formula for trouble.
In the event of an unavoidable encounter, a few beachside remedies may help: Arizona Poison Control says hot water will help break down the poison proteins. Literature suggests cleaning the wound with salt water, removing all membrane remnants possible and immersing the foot in water as hot as the patient can stand without scalding the skin. Care should be taken to avoid infection in the wound. An off-the-shelf pain reliever also might help. If you're stung in Mexico and you can get to the Cruz Roja, the numbing shot they give works wonders, Diffin says.
Speaking from experience, Petryszyn says to use household ammonia to neutralize the proteins. Lacking that, "the best you can do is pee on it," he says. The combination of heat and ammonia-like qualities from urine does a swell job of easing that searing, throbbing pain. And even if it doesn't, it makes for one helluva cocktail party segue.
The bottom line is, unless you have some allergic reaction, the wrath of the ray poses no mortal danger. And if you do get hit, and none of the above remedies suffice, consider buying a fresh catch off a local fisherman and eating the little bastard. Revenge is sweet.
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