Stingrays revisited

Focus on first aid

As we all know the world said farewell to Steve ‘Crocodile Hunter’ Irwin on Monday.

Divemaster gives a briefing

A divemaster gives a briefing to a large group of people at the Sandbar on how to properly handle stingrays.
Photo: Submitted

Australian-born Irwin spent most of his life educating and entertaining millions of people all over the world through his television show The Crocodile Hunter.

Often criticized for his unusual methods, the self proclaimed ‘Wildlife Warrior’ devoted his life to wildlife conservation, environmental projects and education at the Australia Zoo on the Sunshine Coast of Queensland in Australia.

Steve Irwin was a colourful and charismatic individual who gave us a unique insight into the lives of some of the world’s most potentially dangerous animals and those of us who are passionate about wildlife conservation will miss him very much.

What makes this tragedy of particular interest to residents of Cayman is that a stingray has been identified as the culprit. Irwin was filming a documentary on the Great Barrier Reef but due to bad weather, decided to move to shallow water and shoot some footage for a children’s program he was making with his daughter.

According to news reports Irwin and his cameraman cornered a Bull Ray that was sleeping in the sand and startled the creature. In a natural defensive reaction the ray whipped its tail in Irwin’s direction and drove the stinger into his chest, piercing his heart. A preliminary doctor’s report stated that massive hemorrhaging was the cause of death.

Bull Rays are found in the waters around Australia and New Zealand and are considerably larger than the Southern Stingrays we encounter here in Cayman.

The stinger on a Bull Ray can reach 10 inches in length. For those of us who live and work in close proximity to stingrays, and for those who will visit Cayman, it is important to understand that Steve Irwin’s death was an unfortunate and extremely rare accident.

As many of us already know stingrays are gentle, affectionate animals if handled properly. However they can deliver a nasty sting if they are handled incorrectly.

The stingray’s caudal fin or tail is equipped with a stinging apparatus consisting of a barbed spine and an integumentary sheath containing venom glands.

The stingray uses its stinger purely for self-defense and the process is triggered by a reflex if the animal is frightened or handled roughly (most stings to humans occur when the stingray is stepped on).

In many cases victims receive a ‘dry sting’ whereby the barbed spine lightly penetrates the skin. There is no venom delivery and only mild to moderate pain.

If the spine penetrates the skin far enough the barbs will take hold causing the sheath to tear and release venom into the wound. Stingray venom consist mainly of serotonin (a chemical that if injected causes immediate severe pain), and two enzymes that cause ‘necrosis’ or tissue breakdown. Subsequent bacterial infections are also common.

Stingray stings should be treated as a medical emergency. Assess the scene for possible hazards, don barriers (gloves) and activate EMS.

Keep the patient still and at rest and treat for shock if necessary. Control any visible bleeding (if a blood vessel is pierced apply hard direct pressure over the wound). Immerse the area in very hot (but not scalding) water for up to 90 minutes. This should quickly de-nature the venom and reduce pain.

If severe pain persists after immersion apply a cold compress to the wound. Clean the affected area with anti-bacterial soap and water and apply a local antiseptic if available. Monitor the patient’s lifeline (ABCD’S) until EMS arrives or the patient is transported to medical assistance.

Stingray stings are extremely rare and almost never fatal. In response to Steve Irwin’s tragic death, experts in the field of marine biology all over the world have stated that this unfortunate incident should not deter people from learning about, and interacting with, these magnificent creatures.

Here in Cayman, water sports operators have the unique privilege of being able to provide our visiting guests with a truly amazing wildlife interaction.

It is the responsibility of all of us that work in the industry to get as much accurate, factual information that we can about stingrays so we can properly educate our guests.

This weekly column is only an introduction to emergency care skills and is designed to increase interest in First-Aid/CPR training. For information on courses please contact the Red Cross, a medical professional, or a local dive shop.