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Stingrays' early arrival hides a nasty surprise

Once again, it is time to do the stingray shuffle.

Clearwater Beach lifeguards say two to four beachgoers have been stung by the spike-tailed fish each day during the last two weeks, a month earlier than the usual beginning of stingrayseason.

"That number will go up to 12 a day in the summertime," warned senior beach lifeguard Spike Fry, who patrols Clearwater and Sand Key beaches.

Dennis Kellenberger, executive director of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, explained that the rays are drawn by the warm water and return to the gulf beaches to mate and reproduce. They stay close to shore to feast on clams, crustaceans and bits of grass.

"It's that time of year when the water warms up, more people are around and animals are migrating back to warmer waters," Kellenberger said.

The stingrays like to cover themselves in sand, making it difficult for beachgoers to see. They often whip their tails when stepped on, striking their diamond-shaped barbs into the foot or ankle of a victim.

The barbs can pierce the skin and the toxins inside the fish can create pain and swelling. Kellenberger said all stings should be treated immediately to avoid infection.

The American ray and the Southern stingray are the main culprits, Kellenberger said.

Experts believe the best way to avoid being stung is by shuffling along the sand, not stomping or sloshing. The rays hear the shuffle and dart away.

Hence, the title the stingray shuffle.

Fry said lifeguards will soon put up signs on the back of their towers to warn of the rays.

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.

Shuffle, shuffle

Stingrays migrate annually in large numbers to warm shallow water where they give birth and extend their stay to gather food which can create problems for people in an area such as Tampa Bay.

1. The stingray covers itself with a thin layer of sand. People wading in shallow water are more likely to step on one.

2. As the stingray struggles to free itself, its tail whips swiftly to deter the aggressor.

3. The tail may strike the foot or ankle several times, causing a sharp stab of pain.

Recommended Precautions

Don't stomp or slosh through the water - shuffle your feet and the stingrays will dart away.

FIRST AID

What to do if you are stung

Wash the wound with saltwater.

Soak the wound in hot water for 30 to 60 minutes.

In some cases infection can occur. Symptoms include redness, puffiness, tenderness or an increase in pain and warmth around the infected area. If any of these symptoms persist 24 hours after the sting, see a physician.

Cross section of a stinger

The spine, a bonelike spear measuring 1 to 7 inches long, is about a third of the way back on the tail and makes stingrays dangerous. The shape is slightly oval with a sharp point. The saw-edged sides with inverted barbs make removal difficult.

Sources: Dangerous Sea Creatures, National Geographic, Clearwater Marine Science Center

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