Stingrays in the shallows, Whitsundays

The tragic death of the Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin, didn’t do any favours for the already questionable reputation of the stingray. But it’s important to keep in mind that this incident is described by many marine biologists as a terrible freak accident.

Stingrays are not known to be actively aggressive but the ray who took Irwin’s life couldn’t help it. With Irwin behind, and the cameraman blocking its escape route, the reaction to lash out its venomously-barbed tail was purely reflexive, and sadly it cost the world-famous naturalist his life.

To find out more about stingrays, where you’ll find them, and what to do if you come across one, read on.

What does a stingray look like?

While there are nearly 500 known species of stingrays, varying in size and colour, the common characteristics are that of being flat and disk-like with fins that look and act like wings. Their tales can either be long, slender, and whip-like, or short and lobed.

Varying in size from 40cm to 2m or more, in diameter, stingrays tend to dwell on the floor of the ocean’s shallow waters, burying themselves in the sand. They range in colour from sandy to darker brown, so they blend in with their environment.

Are stingrays only prevalent in Australia?

Not at all, stingrays are found throughout the world, in the warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea around Europe, the Black Sea, around Africa, the United States, and Asia.  

How do they sting?

In many species, the base of the tail has one or more barbed stinging spines. These stinging spines and barbs are covered by a thin layer of skin and mucus.

If threatened the stingray will thrust its tail up and forwards in defence, lash out and cause lacerations or punctures while releasing a potent venom. The spine may be forced into the skin of the victim and stay embedded in the skin. Some barbs may contain numerous backwards-directed barbs along the edges which makes removal extremely painful and difficult.

Where do stingrays live?

In the shallows of coastal waters, whether muddy or sandy and preferably calm. Stingrays live in warm and tropical areas. As the climate gets cooler stingrays often migrate to warmer climates. Stingrays are not usually aggressive. They rummage on the sea bottom and only attack if they have been stepped on or threatened. They feed on molluscs, small fish, worms and other little creatures.

How do I avoid a stingray?

Divers are rarely jabbed by a stingray and the most common injury is a barb to the lower leg, from a stationary stingray being accidentally stepped on by a swimmer or wader. Inspecting the bottom of the area, such as a boat ramp, shallow water, or shuffling with well-clad feet and legs when wading in murky shallows are preventative measures you can take.

If a stingray is seen while snorkelling or diving, leave it alone. If a stingray is caught from a boat, cut the line or release the net and allow it to escape. Never pull it on board.

Avoid resting or stepping on the bottom of the reef you’re diving. But if you do need to rest, then shuffle the ends of your fins gently in the sand to give any ray hiding under the sand a chance to swim off.

What if I get stung by one?

  • If the wound is bleeding, apply pressure.
  • Immerse the wound in hot water. The water should be as hot as you can handle, but not so hot that it burns. As the water cools, keep changing it for more hot water, aiming for an immersion duration of 30 – 90 minutes. The stingray toxin is sensitive to heat which acts to deactivate it.
  • Be sure to seek medical advice as part of the barb may have broken off in the wound.
  • Your doctor may administer a local anaesthetic, will remove remnants of the stingray spine, clean the wound, and may give you a tetanus shot if necessary. An antibiotic and pain reliever may be prescribed.   

Is it lethal?

Fatalities reported from stingray deaths are very rare.

Are stingrays the same as manta rays?

No, a manta ray is significantly larger than a stingray and does not have a barb or stinger for a tail.

Are there any interesting facts about stingrays?

Stingrays are part of the cartilaginous family, meaning they are closely related to sharks. This is because both species have skeletons of cartilage, rather than a skeleton of bones. However, they are said to be far more intelligent than their relatives.  

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