Courtney Bilyeu was running toward the murky water alongside a few military officers when it happened.
She was an accountant for the U.S. Navy at the time. And on her way to take a swim with some coworkers in a California beach, she saw blood. The water reached a little over her knees, but she stopped running and screamed.
"I freaked out," the 40-year-old from Tampa said. "I didn’t cause that big of a scene, but it was all military guys, so they probably thought I had wimped out."
If you look at the penny-shaped scar in the middle of her left thigh, you would hardly believe it was a small stingray that forced Bilyeu to endure so much pain about 12 years ago.
She said she rarely thinks about getting stung by a stingray nowadays as she lies on her pink chair twice a week at Passe-A-Grille beach. The water is clearer in the Sunshine State than in California, and it’s easier to spot them.
But Floridia beachgoers are clearly not immune to accidentally running into a stingray — especially during this time of the year. The only way to prevent getting attacked by one is to shuffle your feet — or slide them back and forth without lifting them — as you walk into the water, said Derick Brown, the aquatics program supervisor at Fort De Soto Park.
The flat disk-like animals, colored anywhere from lightly tan to nearly black, like to bury themselves in the sand near the shore to avoid getting eaten by larger fish, sharks and other predators. If a human steps on them, they tend to whip their tails, which have spined barbs, and hit people on their ankles or lower legs.
Brown said the park’s team of lifeguards has already started seeing several people every day get stung by stingrays. He said everyone reacts differently — no matter their age.
He has seen everything from little kids who have no problem with it and quickly bounce back to adults who experience hysteria, get nauseous and have a panic attack.
Picture this: It’s a sunny day at the beach. You’re going into the water to cool off. Out of nowhere, you start feeling an unbearable pain rising from your ankle all the way up to your groin. You don’t know what’s going on. Is it a shark? Did your friend just rudely kick you? The pain is so sudden and intense you can’t help get weight off the leg. You fall back. You can’t help yourself.
That’s kind of what getting stung by a stingray feels like. Tampa Bay is mainly filled with a type of stingrays called southern stingrays, which aren’t aggressive, said Ernst Peebles, an associate professor of biological oceanography at the University of South Florida.
"You can kick them away and they’ll just leave, but if you step flat on top of them then they’ll feel attacked and defend themselves," Peebles said.
Getting stung by these animals is not life-ending. But it’s painful because the barb at the end of the animal’s tail has long, slender spines that curve in the opposite direction. If the barb partly or entirely gets stuck inside the skin, it can leave behind a jagged wound, Peebles said.
Each of the spines in the tail release venomous mucus, which is what causes the pain. The immediate cure is hot water, which basically destroys the toxins, Peebles said. But even after the pain is gone, Peebles said it’s wise to visit a doctor in case an infection develops.
The stingings take place during late spring and early summer because that’s when the stingrays naturally give birth to their young. Peebles said fish grow faster in warm water, so they get to give their young ones an advantage by allowing them to spend as much time as possible in them.
Elise Mulhollad from Tampa said she remembers her mom telling her to shuffle her feet since she was about 6. The 13-year-old said she thinks that’s the least humans can do.
"We’re in their space," she said.