What to do if you encounter a jellyfish or stingray at the beach
One North Carolina beach has seen an average of at least one stingray injury per day for a month.
EMS crews said they responded to four people stung by rays in the last five days at North Topsail, WITN reported.
North Topsail Beach Deputy Fire Chief Bill Poe warned beachgoers that the town has received about 40 calls related to stingray injuries in the past month, WNCT reported.
While there may be more rays spotted on Carolina beaches in the summer — and more stings — there isn’t necessarily a “stingray season,” Joel Fodrie, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Institute of Marine Sciences, told The News & Observer on August 14.
“There’s a peak season for people to be at the beach and in the water, where rays are year-round,” Fodrie said. “So that’s a peak season for people and rays to meet in the surf zone. But there’s not really a ‘stingray season.’ I suspect it’s defined by people as much as rays.”
While most rays are present in Carolina waters throughout the year, Cownose rays can be seen in schools off the coast of the Carolinas right before migrating south to South America for the winter. Some videos have captured hundreds or thousands of them grouped together, Fodrie said.
Types of Carolina rays
There are about 10 species of ray that make North Carolina their home, Fodrie said. The most common of those, in general order of smallest to largest are:
▪ Atlantic stingrays: Somewhat smaller with more pointed snouts, these rays usually spend time buried in the sand or mud of shallow water.
▪ Southern stingrays: Slightly larger than Atlantics usually, with a more serious barb.
▪ Bluntnose stingrays: A bit rarer in the Carolinas, found hunting in the mud in shallower water.
▪ Cownose and bullnose stingrays: Unlike smaller rays, these don’t lay on the bottom, and instead swim freely, often in deeper water. Their barbs also are not on their tails, but further up on their bodies.
▪ Roughtail and spotted eagle rays: Found in deeper water (more than 6 feet) these rays are much larger, reaching 10 feet or more.
Also present in Carolina waters are skates and butterfly rays, which don’t have stingers.
Beachgoers are most likely to encounter the smaller Atlantic and southern rays, which can be about the size of a dinner plate, though southern rays can grow as wide as a doormat, Fodrie said.
Cownose can grow to nearly 3 feet, while roughtail can be as wide across as a car.
“They can get pretty doggone beefy,” Fodrie said. “And their stinger is like a full-blown dagger. I would hate to get poked by one of those.”
The good news for beachgoers is those larger rays are found in much deeper waters than the average swimmer spends time in, Fodrie said.
But the smaller rays that spend their time hidden in the sand and mud of shallow waters are in danger of being stepped on at the beach.
How to avoid rays, and what to do if stung
In the calmer water of the North Carolina sounds, rays can see people coming and “get out of Dodge” quickly before being stepped on, Fodrie said. Less so at the beach.
“They don’t enjoy being stepped on,” he said. “It’s dangerous for them. But on the beach it’s harder.”
There’s more noise and commotion at a beach full of people wading in the shallows and visibility can be worse, so the rays can’t get out of the way in time.
“Some of their sensory abilities are muted,” Fodrie said. “And that’s when someone steps on them and gets stung.”
Rays that most often sting people spend their time buried flat in the mud and sand where they dig “ray pits,” Fodrie said. In their pits, they sift for food such as crustaceans, bivalves and worms. They’ll also scavenge for their meals. But since they’re in shallow water where people wade, and because they’re often covered in sand or difficult to see, they can be stepped on.
The best way to avoid being stung by a ray is to slowly shuffle your feet as you’re walking or wading in the water and make noise so the rays are warned and can get out of the way, Fodrie said.
And if you’re stung, ice won’t be much help.
“It does nothing for the pain,” Fodrie said. “The trick is to get somewhere you can put hot water on the sting. It can almost immediately eliminate the pain.”
That’s because hot water can break down the proteins that make up the ray’s venom, he said.
If the ray’s barb is broken off in the wound, it may be difficult to remove. That would be a good time to go to the hospital, Fodrie said.
“Barbs are certainly pretty nasty and they won’t just fall out on their own,” he said. “You’d want to get help then.”
If you are stung and pain persists despite hot water treatment, or if you believe you may be having an allergic reaction, seek immediate medical attention.
Nature’s vacuum cleaners
Since rays are scavengers, they make “good vacuum cleaners” in the ocean for dead, weak or sick animals, Fodrie said.
In digging their pits, rays also disturb flat, unstructured parts of the ocean floor, feeding and clearing out some creatures and making room for others or changing the environment, Fodrie said.
“They’re establishing and regulating communities down there in the mud,” Fodrie said.
Rays are also important food sources for apex predators including sharks, dolphins and turtles, Fodrie said.
“They’re an important level of our ocean ecosystems,” he said. “They have a profound impact.”