As I sit under the umbrella on Clearwater Beach or in a café on Anna Marie Island listening to the chatter of local visitors enjoying their vacations in this tropical paradise we call home, one of the constant topics I hear has to do with some people’s fear or uncertainty of the ocean and its inhabitants. Concerns about the all famous “sharks” and jellyfish stings, which are real and are really painful, usually lead the list of raising eyebrows. Recently, I have had at least 3 personal incidents in the Tampa/Sarasota area with stings from our local Southern Sting Rays.
Sting rays are common in the shore waters all over the area. You may have been at a zoo or aquarium and fed sting rays or at least watched their beautiful and graceful swimming efforts around the tanks. They are magnificent creatures, some getting really large, Eagle rays can be 10-15 feet across gliding through the water like a plane. Generally we don’t see people having fears or issues with these docile creatures, glad to see them when they are snorkeling or even walking the shorelines.
Issues can occur when the pointed barbed stinger on their tail becomes a defensive tool for the ray and strikes a humans leg or foot. Immediate and intense pain will almost always follow, swelling and even numbness, sweating and nausea can occur as well. The stinger has backward pointing needle-like barbs and under the dermis of the stinger are venom glands that will release toxins into the victim. Stingers usually range in size from a toothpick to pencil. The main predator and target for the ray is a shark, not a human encounter. But when we walk along the shallow waters, if we step down on the ray, it naturally will react and flicking the barbed tail stinger is their defense. To minimize your risk of getting stung by a ray is simple, shuffle your feet when walking in the shallow waters. This action alerts the ray and they swim away before your size 13’s step on them. High stepping and tromping through the water increases your chances of stepping directly down on an unexpected sting ray which then becomes one of the most painful stings you will experience.
The stinger will often puncture the skin on the leg or foot, bleeding follows and then the burning sensation of the toxins. The wound will also typically swell up and become red. It is important to check and see that the stinger and or any dermis from the ray is not still inside the wound. One of the most effective ways to relieve pain is to soak the wound in water as hot as you can stand, being careful not to scald the foot or leg. There may still be a need to seek aid from an Urgent Care center, tetanus boosters are necessary if out of date. The wound is most likely going to take 2 or more weeks to heal, several days of pain can be expected, and re-infection is common requiring antibiotics in many cases.
The waters in Florida are generally safe, but it is the home of many organisms, some of which can be troublesome to people interacting in that environment. Jellyfish stings are still the most common harm people experience from organisms, but stubbing your foot, falling down, eating too much, drinking too much, SUNBURN, are all far more dangerous and common than issues with sea life. Enjoy your time in Florida, have fun in the ocean, and remember to shuffle your feet in the water so sting rays can get out of the way!