You might sprint to the beach, but be sure to slow down and start shuffling as soon as your feet hit the water.
The warm currents of the Gulf of Mexico attract more than tourists to the beaches of Pinellas County. Summer is stingray season, which means it's time to do the stingray shuffle. The venomous barbs in their whiplike tails are painful if an unsuspecting beachgoer kicks or steps on one.
"I've seen grown men cry," said Clearwater Beach recreation supervisor J.P. Atherholt. "If one gets you good, it is very painful. But the good news is that it doesn't last very long."
In water as shallow as 10 or 12 inches, stingrays hide by burying themselves under a thin layer of sand, trying to remain unnoticed.
The best way to make sure stingrays steer clear of your feet is to slide your feet along the sand instead of taking big steps. The shuffling sends vibrations that scare away stingrays in the immediate vicinity, thus you won't accidentally step on one.
"The idea is to push the sand forward and cause a disturbance that displaces the stingray without you stepping on it," said Treasure Island fire Lt. Jeff Logsdon. "If you step on it, when you try to get away — that's when they get the barb in you."
Madeira Beach fire Lt. Steve Suranyi estimated that he has been on several hundred stingray calls. On any given day, there might be zero to 10 incidents, he said, but the numbers increase on weekends when there are more people at the beach.
Stingrays travel in schools and like to come up to shore between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., which is also when most people come to the beach, said Fort De Soto Park supervisor Jim Wilson. But the rays aren't out to get you — their barbed tails are just a defense mechanism.
Some victims report that the stings hurt worse than getting shot or even childbirth, Logsdon said. But treatment is easy and can get you back in the water in less than an hour, depending on the severity of the sting.
If you are stung, the best remedy is to soak the affected area in a bucket of water — "as hot as you can without burning your foot" — for about an hour and a half, said Dr. Anthony Acosta, medical director of the emergency department at Bayfront Medical Center. The heat will cause immediate pain relief.
Most snack bars and lifeguard stations have hot water and buckets ready for stingray incidents.
You could see some blood immediately after the sting, Suranyi said, and there might be a purple bump that lasts for a couple of days.
And although it is rare, head to the emergency room if the stingray leaves part of a barb behind. Do not attempt to remove it yourself.
Also seek immediate medical attention if you experience an allergic reaction or symptoms such as nausea or difficulty breathing.
"Don't let these things keep you from going in the water," Logsdon said. "Just be calm, be careful, and do the stingray shuffle."
Lauren Carroll can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @LaurenFCarroll on Twitter.