Bryan Faust

Warning after three swimmers stung by stingrays at Wategos

THREE swimmers were stung by stingrays at Wategos Beach in Byron Bay and Broken Head this week, begging the question: are stingrays inundating our beaches this summer?

Southern Cross University marine scientist Dr Daniel Bucher said summer was birthing season for stingrays, so large numbers were common close to shore, particularly in calm conditions.

"They're often in there to birth and so you get large numbers of babies around this time," Dr Bucher said

Stingray trivia and graphic

Dr Bucher said the offending species was most likely the common stingaree, a small and well-disguised sand-coloured ray.

"The swimmers have probably stepped right on the back of the animal and it's flicked the tail over and slashed them on the top of the foot, or they've stepped directly on the tail as it's skidded out and it's slashed them on the bottom of the foot."

"Usually you can tell a stingray is threatened because it raises its tail up and arches its back. If that happens stay away from it.

"Most people don't see them and step on them."

Stingray wounds often require stitches as the barbs have fine jagged edges making the wound messy and prone to infection.

"They also get infected very easily because the barb is covered with a thin layer of skin and lots of bacteria and mucus," Dr Bucher said.

"The toxin itself is usually in that skin layer and emphasises the pain.

"Anyone who does get stung should go to the doctor, get the wound cleaned properly, and the doctor will determine whether it needs stitches or not," he said.

Stingrays feed on bottom dwelling invertebrates such as crabs and urchins and yabbies via a unique vacuum technique.

"Normally what they do is settle on the bottom; lift their body and flap which causes a suction and sucks up the bottom sediments and exposes the animals and then they munch on them.

"They have crushing teeth for breaking shells and crab skeletons rather than biting chunks off things."

Stingrays will also hang around creek mouths and other estuarine areas where they can find prey often dazed by the intermingling of salt and fresh water.

2 col x 5.5 in / 96x140 mm / 327x477 pixels Illustration of stingray and profile; closer look at stinger (spine). (AAP/KRT) NO ARCHIVING
2 col x 5.5 in / 96x140 mm / 327x477 pixels Illustration of stingray and profile; closer look at stinger (spine). (AAP/KRT) NO ARCHIVING KRT

Stingray trivia

  • There are dozens of species on the Far North Coast. The common stingaree is the most likely culprit for the stings at Wategos Beach.
  • Another common species is the estuarine stingray, or common brown stingray.
  • Blue-spotted stingrays are common in Julian Rocks and other offshore reefs.
  • More dangerous is the cowtail ray with a larger body and a long, thick tail - with the barb is closer to the end of the tail so it will hit people in the thigh if they step on it.
  • Stingray behaviour is generally peaceful, and they sting only if feeling overtly threatened (stepped on).
  • Stingrays feed on bottom-dwelling invertebrates, such as crabs, urchins and yabbies.
  • In shallow sandy water they are very difficult to see. They will usually get out of your way if given time but if there are large numbers of swimmers stings can be more common.
  • Common predators are hammerhead sharks. When small, they also fall prey to wobbegongs and other small sharks.

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