When gulf waters get warm, savvy beachgoers shuffle to avoid stingrays

A sign on the lifeguard station at Fort De Soto Park’s North Beach recommends warm, soapy water to soothe a stingray’s sting.
A sign on the lifeguard station at Fort De Soto Park’s North Beach recommends warm, soapy water to soothe a stingray’s sting.
Published May 31, 2012

It brings grown men to tears. It keeps lifeguards on the edge of their seats. And it just wants to be left alone.

It's the stingray.

And like locals and tourists, the animals frequent area beaches during the summer months. Which means it's time to do the stingray shuffle.

Stingrays are attracted to warm, calm waters. And with the combination of lots of rays and lots of people, chief ranger Mike Agliano said Fort De Soto Park has seen as many as 30 people in one day with stingray injuries.

The park often sees weekends with no stingray injuries, though, and fatal stings, like the one that killed TV personality Steve Irwin in 2006, are rare.

But the pain from the poisonous barb of a stingray can be excruciating.

"People will call us up, and they'll be all panicky, because you get a lot of pain going up your leg," said Terry Moulton, a firefighter/paramedic with the Treasure Island Fire Department. He said adults tend to cry more than kids do. "The biggest guy you'll ever meet in your life will be a whimpering baby."

Stingrays aren't trying to hurt you, Agliano said, they just don't want to be stepped on.

The rays can be hard to spot, because they like to bury themselves in the sand. So the best way to steer clear of them is to do the shuffle.

Instead of picking up your feet when you walk, slide them along the sandy bottom. The underwater vibrations will scare the stingrays and give them time to swim away.

"For those of us who grew up around here," Agliano said, "it's secondary nature. You walk into the gulf, you shuffle your feet."

But if you forget to shuffle and get stung by a ray, you will know it. Unlike stepping on a sharp object, when the pain is concentrated around the wound, the pain from a sting will radiate, usually up the leg and sometimes into the groin.

Where the barb enters the body, said Steve Suranyi, a firefighter in Madeira Beach, you will feel a burning pain, like an insect bite or "like you have a lighter underneath your foot."

If you get stung, Agliano said, don't call 911.

Submerge your foot, lower leg or affected body part in water as hot as you can stand. This neutralizes the toxins and should immediately relieve the pain.

Ask a lifeguard or someone working at the snack bar for help finding a bucket and hot water.

Remember to clean the wound, which will look like a small hole surrounded by some bruising, and make sure you don't have a piece of the barb stuck in your skin.

Monitor the wound for infection, marked by increasing pain, swelling and redness. Moulton recommends getting a tetanus shot if you haven't had one recently.

And don't worry about the stingray. If it loses its barb in a fight with your foot, the barb will grow back. If you get to keep the long bony structure, which is serrated on both ends, Agliano said, it makes a great letter opener.

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Alli Langley can be reached at