Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Another Stingray Attack

Against the odds, another stingray has speared a victim in the chest. As reported in the news, an 81-year old man from Florida was in a boat when a stingray exited the water, jumped into the boat, and had its barb strike him as the man attempted to remove the ray from the boat. From a picture posted on the Internet, the ray appears to be a spotted eagle ray, species Aetobatus narinari. Also according to news reports, the victim was promptly treated by surgeons, who removed at least part of the barb. The reports that I read indicated a closed chest injury (puncture wound), collapsed lung (pneumothorax), and initial diagnosis of a possible injury to the heart. A later report stated that the victim underwent heart surgery, because a portion of the spine was lodged in his heart. The fragment was "pulled through" in order to completely extract it. At the time of this writing, the victim was in critical condition.

The ray was estimated to have a 5 foot "wingspan" and to weigh approximately 30 pounds. It reportedly died on the boat.

As I mentioned in my first post regarding stingrays that followed the tragic death of Steve Irwin, rays are not known to attack humans, except in self defense. They occasionally have been seen to leap from the water. This is presumed to occur, among other reasons, because they have been startled by a passing boat. If a stingray lands in a boat, either because it has leaped from the water or because it has been captured in a net or by hook-and-line, it is frightened and agitated, and will act in self defense. The only method of self defense possessed by a stingray (unless someone places a body part close to or into the animal's mouth, in which case it may bite) is to forcefully strike with its tail, which often carries a venom-laden barb. The ray can aim its tail in the general direction of the victim, but is probably not accurate enough to chose a specific target site. Being struck in the chest is bad luck indeed for the victim, and probably has more to do with the victim's positioning than with the aiming ability of the stingray.

Underwater and approached in an open and non-threatening manner, stingrays will flee from humans. I have often dived near spotted eagle rays, single and grouped, and have never found them to be curious or aggressive. However, if stingrays are approached too closely, and especially if they are cornered or trapped, they may lash out in defense. So, while it may be tempting to get close to obtain a photograph or to even attempt to touch a ray, these animals should be given a wide berth. If a ray is captured and is out of the water, it may strike with its tail, so must be approached and handled very carefully. Otherwise, a human injury may occur.

As was the case with the Steve Irwin tragedy, our thoughts and prayers are with the victim and his family.

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photo by Paul Auerbach
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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.