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Stingrays' Presence Being Felt

July 25, 1995|DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HUNTINGTON BEACH — A rash of stingray attacks occurred at some of the county's northern beaches over the weekend as calm surf and light crowds brought out the flat fish with the painful sting, lifeguards reported Monday.

At Bolsa Chica State Beach, lifeguards said 15 swimmers received first aid after being stung Friday, while 18 cases were reported Saturday and 10 on Sunday. Up the coast from Bolsa Chica in Seal Beach, five people were stung Friday, 14 Saturday and another five Sunday.

Stingrays are commonly seen in the summer, and lifeguards say an average of five people are stung on a busy summer day.

"This is the time of year they come in," said Joe Milligan, a state lifeguard supervisor. "We've had a cold summer so far, and the stingrays haven't been scared off by a bunch of people in the water."

Flat, sandy beaches such as those at Bolsa Chica provide a haven for the creatures. Usually, warm ocean water and calm surf combine to bring the stingrays close to shore, where they lie buried just under the mud or sandy surface.

The best way to prevent stings is to do what lifeguards term the "stingray shuffle," in which swimmers shuffle their feet when they walk through the surf, kicking up the sand and alerting stingrays to move away and avoid contact.

This summer, Orange County has had an extended flat spell for surf and relatively cool ocean temperatures, meaning fewer people have used the water, lifeguards said. With the lull, the stingrays seem to have taken over some beaches.

"They like to gather down there in Orange County and have their stingray convention," said Pat Moore, spokesman for the state Department of Fish and Game. "In areas near the San Gabriel River [in Seal Beach], there are tons of them."

Moore said that when they're stepped on, stingrays defend themselves by using the protruding needle on their tails.

"The sting is quite painful," Moore said. "It's a severe sting, and like a bee sting, everyone reacts differently. Plus, there is usually blood because the ray's toxin contains an anticoagulant."

Treatment is simple. Lifeguards place the area of the sting in hot water to help neutralize the toxins, Milligan said.

Even though the stings are defensive in nature, state officials refer to sting incidents as attacks.

The record for stings occurred from mid-May to September, 1962, when fish and game officials recorded 500 attacks at the San Gabriel River outlet in Seal Beach.

A state research crew caught 1,384 stingrays in a single 100-foot seine net landing in the area on June 14, 1962, said Moore, who added that netting stingrays has been prohibited for more than two decades.

"They love the hot water and calm ocean, and when a pile of people start heading into the water running into them, that's when stingray reports go way up," said Seal Beach lifeguard Cliff Kjoss.

Milligan said that attendance at Huntington and Bolsa Chica state beaches is down about 26% compared with last year, and he blames a weird coastal weather pattern that has brought lingering morning fog and clouds.

"We haven't had really clear, nice hot days [that] make our beach attendance soar," Milligan said. "With greater summer crowds, the first people who trudge through the water help scare the stingrays off. But when you don't have a bunch of people churning up the water, the stingrays kind of get comfortable and stay around.

"What we had over the weekend is high," Milligan said, "but I remember summers when we've had three people sharing a bucket of hot water for a sting."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Summer Sting Stingrays are living up to their name in Orange County. The flat fish with a poisonous tail is lured closer to shore by lulling surf and a marine layer that keeps beach attendance light. Over the weekend, 43 swimmers at Bolsa Chica State Beach were treated for stringray injuries. *

Stringray: Small, flat fish with nearly round disk. Its whip- like tail has sharpe spines on the back near the middle with poisonous glands at the base of each spine. Size: Up to 30 inches long, 28 inches wide. Coloring: Brownish or gray- brown, usually with yellow spots above, white to yellowish below. Sting: In defense against predators, a stingray will swing its tail upward and inflict a wound with the spines of its tail. Habitat: Sand or mud bottoms off beaches and in bays, from 3 to 70 feet offshore. Range: Northern California to Panama, mostly in warm coastal waters.

Protecting Yourself Feet up: Try not to walk too much in the water. Swim or float to avoid stepping on a stringray. Stringray shuffle: When you do walk in the water, lifeguards suggest shuffling your feet. This kicks up the sand and alerts stingrays, which may move away. Be alert: Stingrays lie on flat, sandy areas in warm water. Lifeguards can tell you places to avoid. Treatment: If stung, let the wound bleed, then soak it in hot water for 30 to 45 minutes. Sources: Peterson Field Guide to Pacific Coast Fish, Huntington State Beach lifeguards; Reserached by CAROLINE LEMKE / Los Angeles Times

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