How to avoid a fatal stingray encounter - expert

  • 12/01/2018

The hot summer weather means we're more likely to share our beaches with some creatures we might not be so happy to encounter. Like stingrays.

There's been a surge in sightings of rays over the holidays, due to the warm water temperatures and increased numbers of bathers.

Stingrays appear placid as they glide through the shallows, but reaching weights of up to 350kg and armed with a venomous barb, they can be very dangerous.

There have been record numbers of stingray encounters overseas recently. At one beach in California last week, 73 people were injured in a day.

They're also notorious for killing Australian 'Crocodile Hunter' Steve Irwin - and many Kiwis have had close calls.

However, for stingray researcher Helen Cadwallader, this is a great opportunity to learn more about this understudied animal.

She's completing her PhD on rays around Tauranga, and she has some tips for what to do if you cross paths with one in the sea.

A US stingray in the ocean.
A US stingray in the ocean. Photo credit: iStock

What to look out for

Ms Cadwallader says there are three main species in NZ.

  • New Zealand eagle ray

These are diamond shaped, olive green on the back and often with blue or grey spots or markings, and white underneath. They have thin, whippy tails and can reach around 1.5 meters in width.

"These guys are found all over the place, in inter-tidal areas, bays, estuaries, harbours and in coastal waters near reefs and over sandflats," she told Newshub.

"In inter-tidal areas, they can make distinctive feeding pits to dig out prey such as shellfish, crabs, shrimp and worms living in the sediment. They're seen all year round, although fewer in estuaries and harbours during the winter."

  • Short-tail stingray/black ray

These are very large and round rays with thick tails and can reach in excess of 2.3 metres width. They are grey, silver or black, have distinctive white spot markings either side of their bodies and very smooth skin.

"This species is often seen in marinas and cruising around sandflat areas in harbours during the summer months but also seen at reefs and offshore islands," she says.

"A large number of this species congregates at the Poor Knights Islands during the summer months, potentially for breeding. It's not known where they go during the winter months."

  • Long-tailed stingray/thorny stingray

This is another very large species found in similar areas to the short-tail stingray, and can reach in excess of 2.1 metres.

"The long-tail is distinguishable from the short-tail stingray by the lack of white spot markings and the length of the tail, which in this species is very long and slender at the end."

  • Other species

Spotted seasonally are spine-tailed devil rays and oceanic manta rays in northern New Zealand waters during the summer and autumn, often at offshore reefs.

More rarely, you can spot New Zealand torpedo rays, also known as New Zealand electric rays, which are dark grey, with almost circular bodies, and are often found covered in sediment. When disturbed they can give a mild electric shock.

US eagle rays in the wild.
US eagle rays in the wild. Photo credit: Getty

How to avoid getting stung

Eagle rays, short- and long-tailed stingrays are not aggressive by nature, however they will defend themselves if stood on or threatened.

"Use the stingray shuffle when walking in sandy areas to avoid stepping on any. And take care when jumping into water," Ms Cadwallader advises.

"If swimming, diving or snorkelling close to a ray, the [short-] and long-tailed rays will raise their tail if they feel threatened.

"If they do this, back away and enjoy how beautiful they are from a distance - don't try and stroke them!"

But if you are stung, this is what to do

Stingrays can cause deep lacerations which will be highly painful, thanks to the ray's toxins - and some people can be allergic to it.

"If the barb is still in the wound, leave it there. Barbs are highly serrated and pulling it out can do a lot more damage," Ms Cadwallader warns.

"Hot water (as hot as bearable without burning) on the wound will help to denature the venom to stop it working and reduce pain. And get to a medical professional as soon as possible."

A passion for stingrays

Ms Cadwallader is eager to find out more about these mysterious creatures.

"I find rays fascinating. They're closely related to sharks, but are very understudied and really interesting in their behaviours and habits. I also think the way they move is beautiful," she told Newshub.

Stingrays are a target for recreational fishers at times and are classified as game fish by bowhunters.

"As they're often found in harbours and estuaries, they may be at risk from human activities, pollution such as heavy metals and other chemicals, and loss or degradation of habitat," Ms Cadwallader says.

"Many fishermen have a habit of cutting the tails of rays when they're caught to avoid getting stung. This is barbaric and needs to stop."