Tampa Bay Outdoors

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Common Hazards

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 21, 2002

[Times art: Teresanne Cossetta]
Forget the "Summer of the Shark." Your chances of being struck by lightning still are greater than being attacked by one of these toothy critters. The truth is most shark attacks are cases of mistaken identity.

Of the 350 species of sharks, only a small percentage are known to be dangerous to humans. According to the International Shark Attack File, there were 76 human-shark encounters in 2001, compared with 85 in 2000. The number of people killed by sharks also dropped to five from 12 the previous year.

In the Tampa Bay area, shark attacks along local beaches are a rare occurrence. But dangerous sharks do frequent the bay during the summer months.


 Every year, more than 30,000 people develop melanoma, the most lethal form of skin cancer. Many will be outdoors enthusiasts.

While skin cancer is treatable, most physicians agree the best approach is prevention.

Start by using sunscreen. Choose one with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher. The higher the number, the greater the protection.

Don't leave the sunscreen at home on overcast days. As much as 70 to 80 percent of the sun's damaging rays can find their way through clouds, or water for that matter.

But a nasty burn isn't the only thing you can pick up at the beach. A heat-related emergency, such as heat exhaustion or heat stroke, can occur on any summer day, especially after strenuous activity.

The elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions are particularly at risk. Signs and symptoms include altered mental status, muscle cramps, weakness or exhaustion, dizziness or fainting, rapid pulse and skin that is either moist, pale, normal to cool in temperature or hot and dry.

Treatment includes calling for help, shading the victim and cooling the victim with cold packs or cool sheets or towels.


 If you're in the water and see a school of rays swim by, don't panic: They are cownose rays and not the kind that inflict so much pain and suffering on beach goers every summer.

Cownose rays do have barbs on their tails, but they are located so close to their bodies that they are relatively harmless. Keep an eye out for their cousins that hang out under the sand.

These stingrays, usually southern or Atlantic, keep to themselves as they forage for food -- unless a human steps on them. Then their tails whip up and around, and the diamond-shaped barb hits the foot or ankle, leaving the victim writhing in agony for hours.

The barbs can pierce the skin, but it is the toxins that cause pain and swelling. The best thing to do is dunk the injured area in hot, soapy water. This will break down the toxin.

It also is prudent to see a doctor, because the barb often breaks off inside the body and has to be removed surgically or the wound will become infected.

The best advice is to avoid being stung in the first place. Just shuffle your feet as you move. The rays will feel and hear you coming and move away. Hence, the phrase, "the stingray shuffle."


 Lightning kills, plain and simple. An average of 100 people are killed by lightning strikes each year in the United States; 10 of these deaths occur in Florida.

If you are out on the beach, pay attention to the skies around you. If you see a large cumulonimbus cloud (they look like a tight wad of cotton balls) on the horizon, chances are a thunderstorm is brewing.

If you see a flash of lightning and wonder how far away it is, forget trying to figure it out by counting "one Mississippi, two Mississippi." The most practical safety guide is the 30-30 rule. The first "30" stands for 30 seconds. If you see a flash of lightning, count to 30. If you hear the thunder before you're done, the lightning probably is close enough to hit you.

The second "30" stands for 30 minutes. After the last flash of lightning, wait 30 minutes before leaving your safe area. More than half of all lightning deaths occur after a storm has passed. Some of the most powerful lightning often occurs at the front and rear of storms, hence the phrase "a bolt out of the blue."

If you are caught on the beach during a storm, stay out of the "tidal area." Water is an excellent conductor of electricity. So is wet sand. A bolt of lightning can strike down the beach, travel along the wet sand and pack quite a wallop.


Gulf Coast beaches seldom experience the dangerous rip currents that plague so many east coast beaches. A rip current forms when water brought in by waves rushes back out to sea in a river-like fashion through a channel that runs along a deep spot on the ocean floor.

Four out of five rescues on America's beaches are the result of rip currents. If you are caught in a rip, don't fight it. Swim parallel to shore until you feel the current slack. Then swim into the beach.

Longshore currents are a more common threat on the west coast. These occur during winter cold fronts and summer tropical storms and run parallel to shore. They sometimes are strong enough to knock an adult off his feet.

So swim near a lifeguard. If no lifeguard is on duty, think twice about entering the water on a rough day if you're not an experienced swimmer.

Wave runners

 Open-water swimmers should keep an eye out for personal watercraft. Most local beaches have a clearly marked Safe Bathing Limit.

Lifeguards do a good job of keeping personal watercraft away from swimmers. But on beaches that are not patrolled by lifeguards, swimmers should exercise caution. Wear a brightly colored swim cap or tow a lifeguard "rescue can" if you're doing an open-water swim in an area with heavy personal watercraft use. Stay within the buoys. Never swim alone.

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