Diving With Stingrays Safely and What to Do if Stung

Let a doctor clean the wound

Divers with stingrays under water
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As they gently glide a few inches above the sand, stingrays appear elegant, peaceful and calm—and they are, the vast majority of the time. The only time divers need to worry is when stingrays feel threatened. A frightened stingray can plunge its sharp, venomous stinger straight through a wetsuit and deep into a diver's flesh.

Diving with Stingrays is Generally Safe

While diving, stingrays may be approached with little risk. On the rare occasion that a stingray strikes a diver underwater, the diver has most likely inadvertently threatened or cornered the animal. Perhaps the diver hovered directly over the ray or floated in front of it, making the stingray feel trapped against a reef without an escape route.

The Stingray Danger Zone

Because a stingray sees and swims forward easily, leave it a forward escape route. Most important, stay out a stingray's striking zone, the area directly above the ray. The ray can easily strike in the area at the top of its back by arching its tail forward. By contrast, the area behind the ray's back and the space to its sides are difficult for the ray to reach without turning its body or making swimming adjustments. Divers who are alert and aware of the stingray's attack zone should be relatively safe.

How to Avoid Attacks

Stingray attacks are more likely to happen to divers who are entering or exiting the ocean through shallow water and accidentally step on a stingray. Naturally, the stingray will react. When a stingray is stepped on, it quickly whips its long tail forward and down, which jabs the stinger at the base of the tail into the offender. This is a defensive maneuver designed to remove the diver's foot from the stingray's body, and it works.

To avoid stepping on top of a stingray, divers can shuffle their feet when entering and exiting the water and throw rocks and shells in front of them as a warning. If a stingray is camouflaged in the sand hiding out, waiting for fish or crustaceans to eat, it might not be visible until it's too late.

In addition, people should be aware of stingray habitats such as long, sandy shores. Because neither dive booties nor fins protect anyone from a stingray's hard, razor-sharp stinger, people should be vigilant if they suspect they might be in a stingray habitat.

What Happens in a Stingray Sting

As the stinger enters the diver's body, a thin sheath containing the venom breaks, allowing the poison to flow into the surrounding flesh. The venom contains enzymes and neurotoxins that cause cell death (and pain), and serotonin, which prevents smooth-muscle contraction. The area will also swell.

How to Treat an Injury

In the unlikely event that a stingray injury occurs, there are two considerations in treating the wounded area: the stinger and the venom it contains. A stingray's stinger is covered with sharp, hooked barbs that are angled to enter a victim smoothly but hook into the flesh if pulled out. Although a diver's immediate reaction might be to pull out the stinger, it may be better to allow a medical professional to remove it, in order to avoid exacerbating the injury.

It is important to neutralize the venom as quickly as possible. Immersing the area in hot water for 30–90 minutes and applying antibiotic ointment can help prevent complications, but it is still advisable to also see a medical professional.

Pieces of the stingray barb can remain deep in the wound and cause a delay in healing and secondary bacterial infection. Foreign matter and infectious bacteria from the water can also be an issue complicating wound healing. Because of these issues, a medical professional may require an X-ray or ultrasound and prescribe antibiotics. Dead tissue may have to be surgically removed.

Because the venom causes cell death, stings near vital organs in the chest and abdomen can be fatal, and these injuries should be taken seriously. Life-threatening allergic reactions to the venom, shock, and seizures can also occur.