“Stingrays stab at least a dozen people at Wrightsville Beach every summer,” said Dave Baker, the town’s ocean rescue director. Last weekend the count spiked, making him, along with lots of other people, wonder if stingrays are going on a rebellious streak!
Stingrays have bothered people for ages. However, recently it has come to our attention just how dangerous these creatures are and can be. Take for example, Television’s Steve Irwin, also known as the Crocodile Hunter. He was struck by the barb of a stingray a few days ago. His death was said to be instantaneous.
Stingrays are plentiful along the North Carolina coast. They are beautiful and graceful swimmers, swiftly gliding across the ocean floor like flying carpets. The flattened fish are related to sharks and have a distinctive, sleek tail with sharp spines on it. Each spine has little barbs along the edges like thorns, which sting like a scorpion’s tail, to defend the stingray from predators. Their sandy-brown color is great camouflage while they dig into the mud for crabs, shrimp, clams, fish, and worms to eat. (www.pbs.org)
They bury themselves in the sand between the beach and the first sand bar. The animals are usually easy-going, but they can be dangerous. Dangerous because they come armed with a powerful tail that whips and poisons as it cuts. They strike when threatened, causing a painful, but temporary wound. Some symptoms of a sting include feeling immediate, sharp, excruciating pain that peaks in 1-2 hours. The wound bleeds and/or the wounded area becomes swollen and turns red or blue. A person’s lymph nodes may become swollen as well. Symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, muscle cramps, tremors, paralysis, fainting, seizures, elevated heart rate, and decreased blood pressure may develop. Recovery usually takes about 24-48 hours. Death has occurred when the patient’s chest or abdomen was punctured, as in the Crocodile Hunter’s case.
The N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher features a variety of stingrays. Some are not much larger than 3 feet, though others get much bigger. The aquarium even includes some of them in their touch tanks after clipping their tails, which grow back much like our fingernails.
In the Cape Fear River, there are Rough Neck Rays which get up to about 200 pounds. My husband has caught these a few times while fishing in the river. The stingrays can take more than half an hour to reel in because of their kite-like swimming bodies. We do not bring these animals into the boat, rather we cut the line or very carefully and quickly remove the hook from its mouth while it’s floating on it’s back top of the water.
Most local stingray injures are from people stepping on the animals unknowing buried in the sand or trying to unhook them from fishing lines. Soaking the wound in hot water helps break down the toxins. Apply OTC antibiotic cream to the wound if infection occurs. However, if there is a chance that part of the barb remains in the person, more extreme medical attention is necessary.
“One of the best ways to avoid a sting is to shuffle your feet in the sand as you wade to scare the fish away,” says Hap Fatzinger, N.C. Aquarium curator. “For fishermen, the safest course is to drape a towel over the ray’s barb before attempting to remove it from the line,” he said.
Stingrays should not be viewed negatively just because of the recent increase in stings and attacks. The surge is probably a combination of crowded beaches, warmer waters, and small surf that bring the rays closer to shore. Go out and enjoy the ocean, just be a tad more careful!