“It could just be a stick,” I tell myself while floating on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico about 100 feet out from the shoreline of Perdido Key.
After all, I can only see a few inches of what appeared to be a black reed, no thicker than a coffee stirrer, protruding out from the sand in about four feet of water. I stay as motionless as possible in the gentle surf, trying to make heads or tails of the situation before I decide that I’m almost certainly looking at a tail.
I press record on my trusty underwater video camera, extend the monopod to its full 53 inches and gently tap the sand near the mysterious object.
The sand explodes and a young southern stingray rockets across the dunes into the murky green depths, fading into the underwater horizon in the blink of an eye. I congratulate myself on my astute observational skills before stopping to consider that I only saw the creature because I approached quietly on the surface, not disturbing the sand.
I was also on heightened alert because it was the third stingray I’d seen that afternoon snorkeling around Perdido Key. Without those two early warnings and the unusually clear water conditions, I almost certainly would not have seen this ray.
Sean Powers, a University of South Alabama professor of marine sciences and senior marine scientist at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, has studied stingrays from Bermuda to Alaska and taken students on dozens of excursions into the Gulf observe them. He’s also experienced the business end of a southern stingray tail while fishing.
Powers said that rays in the Gulf of Mexico and the adjacent bays are far more common and less dangerous than most people think.
“When we pull a bottom trawl in the Bay, you’ll routinely get four or five species of stingray,” Powers said. “Stingrays are much more common than people think, but most of them pose very, very little threat.”
Powers said the most commonly-seen species is the cownose ray, which tends to swim at or near the surface and has a short stinger near the base of its body to discourage predators from taking a bite. That combination makes it very unlikely to sting humans.
“I wouldn’t say you couldn’t get stung by them,” Powers said. “But you’d kind of have to try to get stung by them.”
There are two similar-looking species of stingray that Powers said are responsible for most incidents of human stings: the southern stingray and the Atlantic stingray. Both are bottom-dwellers, who tend to bury themselves in the sand, or move slowly along the floor. Powers said most stings are the result of a ray being stepped on.
“Where you should be worried about them more is, it’s usually fishermen fishing in the back marshes or wading in the bays (who get stung),” Powers said. “The best thing to do is just shuffle your feet. The more noise you can make along the bottom, the more likely they are to shuffle off.
“When people get stung, a lot of times it’s that first step off the boat. There’s no warning for the stingray, and you put your foot right on them. The only time I’ve ever been stung was like that.”
Powers said he does not have a clear idea of how often people are stung, because many do not seek medical treatment after a sting.
“The most important thing is any time you get a laceration in marine waters you have to worry about bacterial infection,” Powers said. “Usually people either go to emergency room because they need one or two stitches or more as a precaution, but most people will just wash the wound out.”
Despite the highly-publicized death of “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin, fatal interactions to humans are exceedingly rare.
“Three or four years ago I would say I’ve never heard of a death from a stingray, now I would say I’ve only heard of one,” Powers said. “That was in Australia, it was a very different species than what we get, it had a very large stinger that just went into his chest cavity.”