Beachgoers raced into the water, cell phone cameras at the ready Wednesday afternoon, as a pod of dolphins frolicked about 100 feet from the sand of Clearwater Beach. Little girls squealed, parents snapped photos and a group of teenage boys swam out to greet the ocean's most PR-friendly residents. But a purple flag waved from the lifeguard station behind them — evidence there was something in the water that packed more of a punch. Stingray season has begun.
Purple flags — which warn visitors to steer clear of "hazardous marine life" in the surf — are the most tangible signs that stingrays are back. And with warmer waters in the gulf this summer, they've arrived earlier than usual. Lifeguards at Clearwater Beach said they've been treating two or three stings a day.
The St. Pete Beach fire department has fielded 62 calls for stings since the beginning of the year — slightly more than average, Lt. Greg Fletcher said.
"A couple of weeks ago, I saw big schools of them going down the beach," he said. "You see them and they swarm around you."
Stingrays bury themselves in the sand in the shallow water and stepping directly on a ray almost guarantees a painful puncture wound, courtesy of its barbed tail.
The best defense? What beachgoers call the stingray shuffle — scuffing your feet through the sand to scare them away.
The best treatment for a sting, lifeguard Derek Bill said, is to submerge the wound in hot water to neutralize the stingray's toxins. He likened the pain to "a bee sting on steroids,'' but reactions can vary.
"I've seen little kids be like, 'Hey, I'm bleeding,' " said Cameron Miller, who has been a Clearwater lifeguard since 2002. "And then big burly men will come up with tears in their eyes after getting stung."
Miller is no stranger to hazardous marine life — three years ago on Memorial Day, he swam into a Portuguese man-of-war, a venomous jellyfish-like creature whose tentacles can stretch to 30 feet. It left Miller with painful welts up and down his chest, back and arms.
"As soon as it hits you, you know," he said.
Beachgoers up and down Pinellas County seemed mostly unconcerned by the threat lurking in the sand.
"We've never seen a stingray — we don't do the stingray shuffle. We just go in and hope for the best," said David Wright. He and his family were vacationing in St. Pete Beach from Lawton, Okla.
Susie Trumpey, visiting from Columbus, Ohio, said she was stung several years ago while collecting shells. Still, it hasn't kept her from the beach.
"I'm kind of stupid — I always go in the water anyway," she said, laughing. "But we certainly shuffle. They're afraid of us as much as we are of them."
Fire department officials said they do the best they can to warn visitors, but said the only way to avoid them is to shuffle.
"We don't seem to do a real good job of keeping people apart from them," said Pinellas Suncoast Fire Chief Robert Polk.
Beachgoers shouldn't be afraid of the surf, though — stingrays are harmless unless disturbed, said Patrick Brafford, the water safety supervisor at Clearwater Beach.
"They're just like us — they just want to lay out in the sun," he said. "We don't want people to fear the beach. Stingrays are just part of the beach."
Aubrey Whelan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8316.