How to Avoid Getting Stung by a Stingray

A bleached stingray barb on a dark background

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There are several hundred species of rays and skates. These animals are essentially flattened sharks. They are classified in the same taxonomic class (elasmobranchii) as sharks, but many skates and rays spend much of their time on the ocean bottom, hence their flat appearance.

All skates and rays have a diamond shape, made up of their body and their wing-like pectoral fins. They also have tails: have a shorter, fleshier tail while rays have a long, whip-like tail. Rays may have one or two spines in their tail that they use in self-defense. The spines are modified dermal denticles that have spongy, venomous tissue inside. A stingray that is surprised can whip its tail into a perceived threat. The spine stays behind and poisons the victim with its venom. In addition, it is difficult to remove, because it has serrations that point toward its base, similar to the end of a fish hook.

Do All Rays Sting?

There are many species of rays. These include stingrays, electric rays, manta rays, butterfly rays, and round rays. The odd-looking sawfish and guitarfish are also classified as rays. Not all of these rays have stingers (the giant manta ray doesn't have a stinger), and not all rays sting. However, there are rays, such as southern stingrays and yellow stingrays, that inhabit shallow waters near sandy beaches, and you should use caution when swimming in these areas.

How to Avoid a Stingray Sting

If you live or vacation in areas with sandy bottoms where rays might be present (e.g. Florida and southern California), you'll want to become familiar with the "stingray shuffle." What does this mean? Instead of stepping normally when you're in the water, drag your feet as you walk. This will alert a stingray to your presence and then it will likely move away before it does any harm. If you do step on something soft, step off it as quickly as possible.

What to Do If You Get Stung by a Stingray

If you are stung by a stingray, stay as calm as possible. Stingray stings can vary as to how painful they are. Most aren't fatal. If you are stung, get out of the water and seek medical attention to make sure the sting is treated properly, as stings not properly treated can result in secondary infection.

Symptoms associated with a stingray sting include nausea, weakness, anxiety, vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, and breathing difficulties. Medical treatment may involve removing any foreign matter left in the wound, washing and disinfecting the wound, and submerging the wound in very hot water (as hot as the victim can stand). The hot water can help with pain and deactivating the venom. 

Do Stingrays in Aquariums Sting?

Stingrays in petting tanks in aquariums usually have their stinging spine(s) removed so that they don't sting visitors or handlers. 

Resources and Further Reading

  • Bester, Cathleen. “Skate & Ray FAQ.” Florida Museum, University of Florida, 5 Sept. 2018.
  • Iversen, Edwin S., and Renate H. Skinner. Dangerous Sea Life of the West Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico: a Guide for Accident Prevention and First Aid. Pineapple, 2006.
  • Martin, R. Aidan. “Batoids: Sawfishes, Guitarfishes, Electric Rays, Skates, and Sting Rays.” Biology of Sharks and Rays, ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research.
  • Weis, Judith S. Do Fish Sleep?: Fascinating Answers to Questions about Fishes. Rutgers University, 2011.
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Kennedy, Jennifer. "How to Avoid Getting Stung by a Stingray." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Kennedy, Jennifer. (2020, August 26). How to Avoid Getting Stung by a Stingray. Retrieved from Kennedy, Jennifer. "How to Avoid Getting Stung by a Stingray." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 14, 2021).

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