Ten years later, Rosa Flores hasn't forgotten the pain.
It had been a calm day at Clearwater Beach and the retiree from Tampa was exploring an outer sandbar. She doesn’t remember seeing the stingray, she recalls now with a laugh, but with one wrong step it all happened at once: she instantly felt its venomous spine lodged in her ankle.
“First it was just the shock, and I was screaming. I think I really scared my grandkids,” Flores said, recalling the incident while sitting on the same beach on Friday.
This time of year, as tourists flock to local beaches and stingrays feed in the warm waters, lifeguards are advising beachgoers to avoid injuries like Flores’s by doing the “stingray shuffle.”
Stingrays will feel threatened if someone steps squarely on top of them, but will peacefully swim away if bumped from the side. So by “shuffling” your feet across the sand without lifting them, experts say, you’re more likely to avoid painful stings.
According to lifeguards, stingray injuries happen year-round but occur with the most frequency when tourism spikes in the summer months. Pinellas Suncoast Fire Rescue, which handles beaches from Belleair Beach to Redington Beach, has responded to around 30 stingray injuries so far this year, according to Pinellas Suncoast Lt. Douglas Higley. On Clearwater Beach, Water Safety Supervisor Patrick Bradford says there have been nearly 10 stingray injuries in the past week alone.
“They settle right down in the sand, flutter down and cover themselves up. People usually step on them or near them without seeing them,” Bradford said.
Southern stingrays are the most common species in this area, and measure anywhere from “the size of a salad plate” to up to 2 feet across, according to Ernst Peebles, an associate professor of biological oceanography at the University of South Florida. When stepped on, their tails will whip around and sting the perceived threat, sometimes depositing a 2-inch spine that can remain lodged in a person’s foot or ankle.
Shortly after the sting, venom from the spine will begin traveling through the bloodstream, causing a shooting pain up the victim’s leg. Lifeguards treat the wound by applying hot water, which Peebles says will denature the venom and “turn off the pain.”
“If a bee sting is a three or a two (out of 10), a stingray sting is more like an eight. It's not comparable,” said Peebles, who has been stung twice in the course of his research.
Sting victims are encouraged to immediately seek a lifeguard to apply hot water and clean the wound, after which pain typically subsides quickly. In rare cases, stingray spines can become embedded in bone—in this case, Peebles recommends that victims go to the hospital to have it removed and avoid infection.
If stingrays are spotted near a beach, lifeguards will fly a purple flag indicating dangerous marine life. But even when purple flags aren’t on display, experts advise using the stingray shuffle, warning that it’s better to be safe than sorry.
“They can be very hard to see and they generally will not get out of your way,” Peebles said. “It can be hard to avoid them, and you can’t count on them avoiding you.”
Contact Aaron Holmes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 706-347-1880. Follow @aaronpholmes.