ST. PETERSBURG — As a surfer, former lifeguard and aficionado of all things related to the beach, I thought I knew everything I needed to about stingrays.
"The Southern stingray is the one you need to watch out for," I told Brent Winner, eager to share my knowledge of the batoid fishes. "That is the one that gets everybody."
Winner, the state's expert on sharks and rays, had been trying to convince me to come to this year's Marine Quest when the conversation turned to rays.
The annual event, which showcases the work of the St. Petersburg-based Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, is a big hit with kids, but after 20 years on the outdoors beat, there isn't much I haven't heard or seen when it comes to fish.
"Cownose rays … now those are the ones that don't have stingers," I said, digging myself a deeper hole. "They can't hurt you."
Winner paused, then explained, in a nice way, that I was not omnipotent when it came to aquatic life.
A spiny species
One of the most popular exhibits at Marine Quest is a touch tank that usually contains a dozen or so defanged rays.
"Actually, we clip the spine," Winner said. "It is similar to what happens in the wild — rays slough off the spine and grow a new one. The bigger the ray gets, the bigger the spine."
There are more than 500 species of rays in the world, descendants of creatures that swam the Earth's oceans during the time of the dinosaurs. The Tampa Bay area has numerous species of skates and rays, including several that laymen would refer to as stingrays.
The species responsible for most "stings" or "hits," Winner said, is actually the Atlantic stingray, one of the smaller species in local waters.
"Nine times out of 10 you won't see the stingray," he said. "They hide in the sand, and that is why people step on them."
Do the shuffle
All rays have "spines," which most people mistakenly call "barbs." The location of this razor-sharp apparatus can differ from species to species and may range in length from 1 to 10 inches.
The bad boy on the Gulf Coast is the Atlantic stingray (wingspan of about 1 foot), which during peak season may tag as many as 100 beachgoers in a day.
Other common rays include the bluntnose (3-foot wingspan), the Southern (5-foot wingspan) and the roughtail, which can measure 7 feet across and weigh more than 600 pounds.
The cownose, a member of the eagle ray family, is a free-swimmer that often forms into schools of 1,000 or more, causing great alarm among beach crowds. This ray, which can measure 3 feet across, is relatively harmless, unless you try to catch it with your bare hands.
"They have spines, too," Winner said. "The best bet is to just leave them alone."
A ray's spine is its only means of defense against its primary predator, the shark.
"So when you step on a ray, the tail comes up because it thinks it is being attacked," Winner said.
Stingrays can be found in local waters year-round, although they are most prevalent in the spring and summer. The best way to avoid being hit is to shuffle your feet and stir up the sand so the ray moves off.
But if you do get stung, submerge the wound in hot water, then head to the nearest emergency room to make sure the spine has not broken off inside the wound.
Crocs and gators
Winner will be offering more insight into two of my favorite subjects — sharks and rays — tomorrow at Marine Quest. But anglers can also learn about a variety of other marine-related issues, including how to properly catch and release fish to increase their chance of survival.
You can also stop by the reptile and amphibian exhibit to learn how to tell the difference between an alligator and a crocodile, then peruse an assortment of native reptiles and amphibians, including striped newts and tiger salamanders.
The fish ecology and fish biology exhibits are also a big hit with fishermen. If you have ever wondered what is inside a snook's stomach, drop by and discover why certain species have adapted to eat different types of prey.
While you are there, take the kids to visit the sea turtle research area and learn why this winter's spell of cold weather brought nearly 5,000 of these endangered creatures on shore.
And if that's not enough to hook you, check out the man-eating plant show. Well, that might be stretching things a bit, but they do have some carnivorous plants — sundews, Venus flytraps and cobra lilies — that actually feed on insects and small frogs, guaranteed to give you some lively water cooler conversation on Monday.