Hardly a summer's day on the sands of Southern California passes without some unfortunate beachgoer feeling the painful jab of a stingray. "Stingrays are an everyday occurrence along the Southern California coastline," according to lifeguard Lt. John Everhart to NBC San Diego news. California’s round stingray prefers the state’s southern coast. Its sting can be extremely painful, but fatalities are rare. While records aren’t typically kept of injuries, a study led by Cal State Long Beach determined the stingray population and number of stings is increasing, especially at Seal Beach where at least 16,000 to 40,000 stingrays swarm.
In summer, thousands of people head to Seal Beach at the northernmost end of Orange County, a favorite with surfers and families. But enthusiasm is often quelled by stingray warning signs or -- on a particularly bad day -- the sight of triage set up on the beach. The number of stings has significantly increased over the years. In just the first week of July, 147 stings had already been recorded for 2012, reported the "Sun News." Seal Beach also has the largest concentration of stingrays in the nation.
Years ago locals started calling Seal Beach "Ray Bay." More recently, local surfer and musician, Gary Snow, composed the “Stingray Shuffle,” an amusing song with some serious tips for avoiding stings. In summer, thousands of round stingrays flock to the shallows to mate and later give birth to young rays, called pups. About one-third of stingray injuries in the entire coastal United States occur on Seal Beach, according to lifeguard Chief Joe Bailey in the "Seal Beach Sun."
Other California Beaches with Stingrays
While you won’t see nearly as many stingrays at other California beaches as at Seal Beach, exercise caution at all sandy-bottomed shallows off Southern California beaches. The rays tend to come into the shallows and burrow in the sand especially when the surf is flat or small. When the waves are big, there’s less danger of an encounter. Beaches with abnormally high numbers of stings include Seal Beach, Bolsa Chica and Huntington Beach in Orange County, and San Diego County’s La Jolla Shores and Torrey Pines. One unseasonably warm October weekend at Huntington Beach lured 20,000 people to the beach and droves of rays to its shallows, resulting in more than four hundred stings in just two days.
Leading causes for the increased stings on the Orange Coast, as reported by Environment News Service include: habitat displacement due to development of estuaries and bays; more people moving to Orange County, which in turn brings more people to the beaches; and in the case of Seal Beach, power plants heating water from the San Gabriel River that pours into the ocean.
The round stringray's mottled brown disc has a tail fin with a two-inch barbed stinger. Usually only about one-quarter inch of the stinger goes into a person’s flesh, but that’s all it takes for painful toxins to enter the wound. These rays, measuring about three inches at birth and no longer than 22 inches at maturity, are not aggressive by nature and mostly lash out when stepped on.
The degree of pain experienced varies from mild to excruciating, and as the toxins spread through the wound, the pain increases. If you are stung, don't rub the wound with sand or meat tenderizer as you might to treat jellyfish stings. Go immediately to a lifeguard, who is trained in first response, skilled at treating stingray wounds and can monitor your vital signs. The wound must be cleaned and then soaked in hot water. If after an hour of soaking, the pain persists or there is any sign of infection, see a doctor immediately. An allergic reaction can prove fatal if the victim goes into anaphylactic shock. Those allergic to bees may also be allergic to stingrays, so lifeguards advise bringing injection kits to the beach just in case.
The best way to avoid getting stung, although there's no guarantee, is to do the stingray shuffle, as Snow advises in his song. Lifeguards continually advise beachgoers to do this when stingrays are about. Shuffling your feet without picking them up prevents you from haplessly stepping on a ray and warns the ray, which usually will dart off. Stingrays burrow from sand’s edge to the surf break, so wherever your feet can touch bottom, shuffle or keep them raised up, if possible. Stingrays may visit the shallows more frequently in June and July to mate and in October to give birth. At Seal Beach, look for signs directing surfers to areas with fewer stingrays.
- NBC San Diego: 130 Swimmers Stung by Stingrays
- California Fish & Wildlife: Marine Sportfish Identification: Rays
- Seal Beach Sun: Stingrays Plague Bathers and Waders at Seal Beach
- Orange County.com: Beach Blog: Stingrays Jabbing Feet a the Beach
- San Diego Union Tribune: 41 Stingray Victims Treated at La Jolla Beaches
- Environment News Service: Watch Out for Stingrays, Jellies
- Photo Credit Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images