Stingray season starts slow on Pinellas beaches
For the unsuspecting swimmer, encountering a stingray can be harrowing.
“The pain's an intense burning, throbbing sensation that will go up your leg,” said Kathy Cleary, the aquatics supervisor for the Pinellas County Beach Patrol. “The barb … is serrated like a knife. Sometimes [it] breaks off in the skin.”
Stingray season begins when the water turns warm – usually in late-spring or early-summer. So far, there have only been a handful of reported incidents with stingrays at county beaches this year, Cleary said. As beachgoers pack the shallow waters that line Pinellas County beaches, though, public safety officials are stressing caution as key in preventing often-excruciating run-ins with stingrays.
Painful stingray encounters typically involve an unassuming beachgoer stepping on an equally unassuming stingray, which uses its sharp tail to defend itself. While not extremely common – two occurred at Fort De Soto Park over Memorial Day Weekend, Cleary said – a small number of incidents was reason enough for the Clearwater Beach Patrol to issue a warning.
“We're finally getting long spells of warmer temperatures,” said Patrick Brafford, a Clearwater Beach Patrol water safety supervisor. “With these waters warming up, we're going to start to see more.”
Stingrays are attracted to warm, calm, shallow water, where they can often blend in with the sand. As the warming water also attracts swimmers, more hits are likely, Brafford said. That likelihood multiplies with high tide, which draws more of the creatures to the water's edge.
The traumatic stings can be prevented – or at least reduced in number. Lifeguards at some beaches, including Fort De Soto, Clearwater Beach and Sand Key Park, issue color-coded warnings when there's an elevated risk.
“When we do start to get a lot of stingray hits, we flag,” Cleary said. “When you see a purple flag, that's an indication of dangerous wildlife.”
Wednesday, green flags were flying at Clearwater Beach, indicating calm waters and a low risk.
When there isn't a flag up, it's still a good idea to do the “stingray shuffle,” which involves walking slowly while kicking up sand and agitating as much water as possible.
“You just don't want to run full force into the water in front of you,” Cleary said.
For many swimmers who do fall victim to a startled stingray, the treatment is relatively simple.
Any type of dish detergent is fine for cleaning a wound from a stingray, as long as it's mixed with warm water, Cleary said. If a stingray's barb breaks off, people should seek medical attention and might need a tetanus shot.