CLEARWATER — If we're lucky, the stingray hidden under the sand of Clearwater Beach last week was just a lone traveler wanting an early start on summer.
If we aren't lucky, the stingray was a harbinger of an early start to this year's stingray season and a reason for spring breakers to learn a new dance, the Stingray Shuffle.
Last week, a visitor walking in the shallows on Clearwater Beach stepped on the velvety back of a stingray buried in the sand and immediately felt the painful lash of the creature's barb. It's a not-uncommon consequence of carelessly stomping around in the gulf, but the stingrays don't normally arrive until summer's heat warms the water.
A stingray sting in March is a rare thing — rare enough that the city of Clearwater put out a news release Wednesday warning the public to do the shuffle. Locals know that during stingray season, it's wise to shuffle your feet while walking in the surf, because the scraping sound and vibrations scare away the stingrays. But the city is concerned that spring breakers won't know how to protect themselves.
The news release brought television crews to Clearwater Beach on Wednesday, primed to film an early invasion of stingrays. But Chris Lang, 27, interim supervisor of the Clearwater Beach Patrol, had to tell them that, um, there was just the one stingray and just one victim stung, and that was last week. There was no invasion to document.
But that doesn't mean there won't be more action soon, he cautioned.
"The water's rapidly warming up," said Lang, an 11-year veteran of lifeguard duty on the beach. "It's 71 degrees out there now."
Lang said that could mean that stingray season will have an April start this year, instead of the more typical May or June. Last year, the season also started early — in late April — and was especially heavy.
Certain species of stingrays bury themselves in the sand. They aren't aggressive, but if they get stepped on, they lash out with their barbed, bonelike stinger, usually connecting with the victim's foot or ankle. A venom is injected that causes excruciating pain.
Heat breaks down the protein-based venom, so lifeguards offer sting victims the option of taking a heat pack with them or going to the nearby fire station, where paramedics will immerse the wound in hot water to lessen the pain.
Some people who are allergic to bee stings also react to the stingray's toxin, Lang said, and have to be treated quickly for the reaction. And occasionally, a portion of the stinger breaks off under the victim's skin. Then the person has to be taken to a hospital so the barb can be surgically removed. Both of those situations are rare, Lang said. Usually, the victim just has to endure an hour or so of intense discomfort.
But by Wednesday afternoon, a week after the first sting, no one else had been stung on Clearwater Beach and no stingrays had been seen cruising the shallows. The beach was postcard perfect: sunny, busy, with beachgoers sunbathing, walking, splashing and generally having a good time.
But just to be safe, the city advises, be sure to shuffle.