My eyes focus on the blood-covered extremity in front of me and the deep gash across the ball of my foot. As soon as I feel the throbbing pain escalate, it hits me like a ton of bricks – I have been swiped by the dangerous barbed tail of a stingray.
Intense pain shoots through my foot and up my left leg. I grab my swollen ankle with both hands, hoping that I can somehow stop the poison from spreading throughout my body. It’s nothing like I had imagined; stingray victims don’t properly prepare you for this kind of torture.
My foot continues to gush blood from the gaping wound as our surfing buddy runs to get help at the lifeguard tower 1/2 mile down the beach…
How to Stay Safe When Traveling to Beaches Around the World
After living by the ocean for 6 years and teaching little ones about ocean safety as a surf instructor, I’ve come to know the stingray shuffle well.
I’m probably more careful than most people in that my shuffles are very exaggerated and if I’m surfing, I’ll usually ride by board on my belly for as shallow as possible to avoid stepping on a stingray, sea urchin or sharp reef.
In addition to doing the stingray shuffle in sandy areas, here are a few more things to keep in mind when playing in the ocean during your travels:
- Always ask a local or research online beforehand to get an idea of the precautions to take at the beaches in the area. Some areas are known for sea urchins, some have dangerous rip tides and others can have razor-sharp reef.
Most beaches with lots of tourists and children have sandy bottoms with not much to worry about. If you are venturing to an uncrowded spot, just make sure you are more aware and bring reef shoes if necessary.
We saw these sea urchins while walking around in waist deep water on Koh Phangan island in Thailand. Thankfully the water is crystal-clear and we were able to avoid stepping on them.
- When surfing or swimming in an uncrowded area, there is more of a chance of stingrays roaming around. The only good thing about surfing or swimming in a crowded area is that those other people have more than likely scared away some of the bottom dwellers.
If you like to get away from the crowd, just be more careful and step lightly when you step down from your board, raft or other floating device.
- Rip currents are important to be aware of when swimming or floating in the ocean. A rip current (or rip tide) is a strong channel of water flowing seaward from near the shore.
Rip currents can be dangerous to even the strongest swimmers if you don’t know how to react once you notice yourself floating out to sea. Luckily, most rip currents are less than 100 feet wide, so all you need to remember is to stay calm and swim parallel to the shore until you feel like you are out of the rip. Once you are out of the rip, then you can safely and easily swim to shore.
What to Do If You Get Stung by a Stingray
- Immediately go home, a hotel or to the nearest lifeguard station to treat it. Unfortunately, it took at least 25 minutes before we were able to get to hot water and the pain progressively gets worse every minute that you don’t soak it.
- Soak the wound in the hottest water you can stand (NOT hot enough to burn your skin!). A lifeguard station won’t give you anything for the pain, but if you are at home, take some Advil. Don’t take aspirin. It thins the blood and allows the toxin to travel easier.
The story behind hot water treatment is that it deactivates the poison. Stingray venoms are composed of heat-labile proteins, therefore soaking the wound in hot water will alter the structure of the protein molecule.
- Soak the wound until your foot starts to feel better. The pain won’t be completely gone, but it should feel dramatically better after 1-2 hours.
If you notice shortness of breath, chest pain, hives, swelling in the face or anything that would indicate that you are having an allergic reaction, call 911 immediately.
- If you have a big cut, make sure to clean it well and often. If it looks like there is still a barb in the wound, you should get it surgically removed.
- If you notice the wound not healing or getting worse over the next few days, seek medical attention. My cut was at least an inch deep and got infected, so I had to get antibiotics. Don’t be stubborn like me and wait a week to get it checked out.
I was also told that some doctors don’t know this, but if you get cut through a wetsuit or flippers, you will require different antibiotics. Apparently the run-of-the-mill antibiotics won’t work if rubber gets inside the wound.
If you are wondering what to do if you step on or brush up against a sea urchin, here is a great article on how to treat a sea urchin sting.