CLEARWATER — Local beachgoers know all too well the period from late spring to early fall called stingray season, because so many stings are reported during that stretch.
But experts say the timing is caused more by the movement of humans than that of stingrays.
"As far as seasonality goes, (stingrays) are here all year round," said Brent Winner of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "The water is warming up, bringing more people to the beach and in contact with stingrays."
Either way, consider the "season" under way. Fifteen visitors at Clearwater Beach were stung in one recent weekend alone.
Stingrays can be found in the waters off Pinellas County beaches any time of the year, so waders and swimmers must be wary regardless of the season.
Patrick Brafford, water safety supervisor of the Clearwater Beach Patrol, said the high number of stings recently is due to rapidly increasing water temperatures and flat, calm waters bringing the stingrays closer to shore, but also bringing large crowds to the beach.
Clearwater Beach reported a higher number than some other Pinellas beaches. In Treasure Island, beachgoers have reported about two or three a week. In St. Pete Beach, fire officials didn't have a number, but said there had not been many stings recently.
The typical stingray attack occurs when a person walking in the water steps on the stingray, causing the creature to lash out with its sharp, serrated barbed tail. Stingrays like to bury themselves in sand to escape predators, so they can be hard to spot, even in clear waters.
Experts say the best way to avoid being stung is to do the "stingray shuffle" by sliding your feet along the sand instead of taking normal steps. The vibrations alone are enough to scare away hidden stingrays.
People who get stung report the pain can be excruciating. The barb can puncture the skin and even break off and get stuck there, making the wound prone to infection.
Typical treatment involves cleaning and disinfecting the wound, then soaking it in hot water.
Brafford wants people to be informed about the dangers of stingrays and the need to do the shuffle, but he doesn't want them to be afraid to visit the beach.
"We don't want to freak people out, we don't want to scare people," he said. "We just want people to be aware."
Will Hicks can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155.