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A tail lashing to remember

It's peak season for stingrays, which hide in the sand. About 200 people have been stung at Fort De Soto in two weeks.

Published July 30, 2003

[Times photos: Lara Cerri]
Erik Wijnant, a vacationer from Belgium, soaks his feet in hot soapy water Tuesday at Fort De Soto Park in Pinellas County after he was stung on both feet by stingrays. His daughter, Gwenny, cheers him up by imitating a fish. Park officials had closed the beach Sunday afternoon after about 60 visitors were hurt.
Click here to view larger version of graphic.

ST. PETERSBURG - Erik Wijnant was snorkeling by some rocks at Fort De Soto Park about midday Tuesday when his son Bryan, 12, screamed out in pain.

The father ran over to see what the problem was. Then - slap! slap! slap! - he discovered it firsthand. Stingrays.

Bryan was stung once. His father was stung three times, twice on his left foot, once on his right.

It is the peak of the annual stingray season here. Officials at Fort De Soto Park closed the beach Sunday afternoon, after about 60 visitors reported getting stung. The beach was also closed the previous Sunday because of stingrays. Now, park officials are warning beachgoers to take care to avoid the stealthy rays.

"I was looking for sand dollars, and I found a stingray," said Bryan Wijnant, as he soaked his foot in a bucket of hot, soapy water to relieve the pain. The Wijnants are vacationing from Belgium, where there are no stingrays.

Bob Browning, park district supervisor for the Pinellas County Park Department, estimated about 200 people have been stung at the beach over the past couple of weeks. Although that might sound like a lot, the stingrays are likely to stick around for only a couple more weeks, after which they may return for another spell later in the year, as they usually do, Browning said. In 2000, the worst year in recent memory, about 500 people were stung by rays at Fort De Soto, of an estimated 3-million visitors.

Although several other beaches have not noticed an uptick in the number of stings, rays do travel, so it may only be a matter of time. Jeff Logsdon, a firefighter and paramedic with the Treasure Island Fire Department, said the town had a campaign about two years ago to educate people on how to avoid rays and what to do if they were stung. Since then, the number of calls about stings has decreased.

The most visible stingrays are cownose rays, which typically swim in big schools and don't cause problems for humans because they're easier to avoid, according to Brent Winner, a marine biologist at the Florida Marine Research Institute in St. Petersburg. Other stingrays, including the Atlantic, the bluntnose and Southern stingrays, like to settle into the sand to stay protected from their natural predators, sharks. In warmer months, rays like to swim into shallower areas; in cooler months, they seek the warmth of the deeper waters.

When a stingray is stepped on, it will lash up with its tail to stun the person with a protein-based venom, Winner said. But stingrays are not aggressive and will do their best to avoid humans if they sense them nearby.

"Stingrays do not attack people," Winner said. "This is purely a defensive mechanism."

That doesn't mean a sting won't hurt. "I've asked half a dozen women, and they said it was worse than childbirth," said Winner, explaining that the severity will depend on factors such as the size of the fish and the location of the sting.

"It hurt so bad, it felt like my foot was on fire," said Jackie Hofts, 16, of Topeka, Kan., who was stung on the back of her left heel at Fort De Soto on Sunday while visiting her father and stepmother, of Brandon. "It felt like someone had stabbed you with a hot stake."

If you do get stung, the best remedy is to clean the site of the sting and then soak the area in hot, soapy water for at least 30 minutes until the pain subsides. The heat neutralizes the venom, while the soap will help prevent an infection, which is especially important because marine bacteria can be more deadly than the stingray venom, Winner said. Victims should see a doctor if they see signs of an infection, such as puffiness and redness or warmth around the wound more than 24 hours after the sting, or if they suspect a barb is stuck under the skin.

But the best plan is to avoid the rays by doing the stingray shuffle - shuffling your feet in the sand as you walk, to alert the rays to your presence. If stingrays sense a human, they'll swim away.

After all, they don't like getting stepped on.

[Last modified July 30, 2003, 01:33:02]

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