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Warm water and warmer weather means more stingray injuries

Beachgoers are recommended to do the stingray shuffle.
Beachgoers are recommended to do the stingray shuffle.
Photo by Eric Ritter via Flickr Creative Commons

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Over the New Year's holiday, maybe you spent some time a beach walk or even splashed in the waves during a Polar Plunge. Hopefully, you weren't one of the nearly 400 people treated for stingray stings in the last week in Huntington Beach.

That might seem unusual for this time of year. Chris Lowe, professor of marine biology at California State University, Long Beach, agrees.

"That's a normal late summer type of occurrence in Southern California, but for the winter, that's odd," Lowe said.

The summer-like December weather likely was a cause. Good weather warmed the water on the shore, bringing the stingrays out of deeper water, and it also brought many more pairs of feet to the beach. The combination over the holiday was painful. Lowe said a stringray barb to the ankle makes even the toughest surfers to weep on the beach. [Lowe estimates he's been stung 18 or 19 times over his career.]

Lowe and his students have studied stingrays in Orange County for about twenty years. He says typically, the rays hang out in a channel in deeper water, where the water is usually warmer than the shallows in the winter. A change in the weather pattern, like an El Nino year or long-term climate change, can interrupt that. This is another harbinger of global climate change, Lowe said.

The other local hangout for stingrays? Seal Beach, or Ray Bay, as the locals call it. Lowe and his students estimate that a third of all stingray-related injuries in the United States occur at Ray Bay every summer. Local lifeguards keep a record of the thousands of injuries reported there over the years.

The best way to live with the rays year-round? Do the Stingray Shuffle, even in the winter: shuffle your feet along the sand as you enter and exit the shallow water. This gives the stingrays, which bury in the sand, a heads-up that you're coming through. They'll flutter away instead of flicking their barbed tails toward your unsuspecting ankles in fear.