Beware of stingrays at the beach

Protect yourself from stingray injuries at Southern California beaches, especially Seal Beach

July 10, 2014
A stingray hiding in the sand at a Southern California beach

Truck driver Steve Edelman was playing with his 9-year-old son in waist-deep water at Seal Beach when he felt something squishy underfoot.

“Then I felt a knife-like pain,” he says. “I thought it was a shark. It was so intense it took my breath away.”

He hobbled out of the water hopping on one foot, his son trying to help support him. 

“I’m a pretty tough guy, but I was screaming and crying like a baby,” Edelman recalls.

The Garden Grove resident had just become a statistic at Ray Bay, a nickname given to Seal Beach by local residents.  The north Orange County town earned the moniker because of a preponderance of stingrays that live in its shoreline waters.

Throughout the world, stingrays — timid, shellfish-eating cousins of the shark — inflict excruciating injuries on thousands of swimmers and surfers annually.  They’re commonly found along the shoreline of most Southern California beaches.

When stepped on, or otherwise harassed, a stingray responds by whipping out its venomous stinger, a razor-sharp barb attached to the end of its tail.

One of the most common locations is Seal Beach, say local experts, who estimate that at least one-quarter of the stingray injuries that take place annually in the United States occur here.  That’s why Dr. Carl Schultz, a UCI Health emergency medicine physician, is studying the phenomenon.  And it’s why he cautions those who venture into the water to tread with care.

“Seal Beach is the stingray capital of the world,” says Schultz, who is working on a stingray injuries research project with fellow UCI Health emergency medicine physician Dr. Robert Katzer.  The two have been tracking stingray victims for two years; they’re working on a profile of the disease that’s caused by the stingray’s venom.  A couple of the questions they’re asking:  How long does the pain last? What are the best — or worst — long-range treatments?

Hot water is the best treatment immediately following a bite.  “As hot as you can stand without burning yourself,” Schultz says. 

At Seal Beach, lifeguards produce buckets of steaming water so that victims can soak their injuries, says Marine Safety Chief Joe Bailey, who has dealt with the local phenomenon for 26 years as a lifeguard.

“It’s usually a foot injury; people can’t see the stingray because it’s buried in the sand.  They step on it and the tail flips up and nails them,” Bailey says. 

Seal Beach lifeguards are trained to watch for people doing what they call the stingray hop.

“When we see someone hopping on one leg, we send the truck out to get them and bring them in so they can put their foot into a bucket of hot water. It breaks down the venom and reduces the pain.”

For the most part, victims don’t need to visit the emergency room, Schultz says, “unless the stingray nails an artery or a barb gets stuck.”

The best thing is to avoid becoming a victim in the first place, he says.

Bailey’s advice: Do the stingray shuffle when you’re in the water.  Keep your feet planted in the sand when you move them back and forth.  That gives the stingray a chance to get out of your way — and you a chance to move away quickly if your toe touches something squishy. 

Schultz agrees. "Other than the stingray shuffle, there's not much you can do."

A local surfer and musician, Gary Snow, has even written a song about it:

"Do the Stingray Shuffle. Do the Stingray Shuffle. If you’re gonna have fun, it’s rule number one."