Our trip to Mustang Island State Park proved to be filled with all kinds of animal interactions, both good and bad. We arrived early in the morning and the weather was beautiful. Everything started out well, the kids were swimming, boogie boarding, and building sand castles. We found a cabbage head jellyfish trapped in a tide pool with the tide quickly receding. I picked up the jellyfish by the bell, (Cabbage Head jellyfish do not have a painful sting. However, you should never pick up a wild animal unless you are positive of your identification and knowledge of the creature. Mistakes in identification can be costly if you choose to handle an animal. In general, you should never feed or handle wild animals.) The kids all took turns holding the jellyfish.
Then we watched how it moved in the shallow tide pool. The jellyfish demonstrated why it is classified as plankton: it moves on its own, but it can’t go fast or choose a direction. It really only floats where the ocean takes it. After everyone had a chance to hold the jellyfish, one of the kids released it out into the deeper water.
Just after the jellyfish was let go, one of the dads came out of the water saying that he thought something pinched him or he cut his foot on a shell. His heel was bleeding quite a bit from a tiny hole, and I immediately had the suspicion that he had been stung by a stingray. I know (unfortunately from experience) that the stingray’s neurotoxin is activated and starts its travel through the blood system when the sting is exposed to air. So, I had him stay in the water. Then I looked out about 20 feet and saw that we had 20+ kids and parents in the water right in front of him and he was bleeding. I decided that letting the neurotoxin activate was safer than having kids in the water with blood that could possibly attract sharks. I had him sit down while his wife gathered their stuff. I gave them directions on what they need to ask for at the ranger station. I would have taken him myself, but when there is one stingray in shallow water, there are usually more and I still had 8 or so families in the water to watch.
So, when you get stung by a stingray, it doesn’t hurt any more than a wasp sting at first. Within the first 30 minutes, it increases in pain and travels up from the puncture until it is extremely painful. As soon as possible after getting stung, you need to soak the puncture in scalding hot water (replacing the water every 10-15 minutes to keep it hot) for 2-3 hours. The water needs to be so hot that it steams, but is not boiling. This will injure the skin slightly, but it is necessary to avoid days of fairly extreme pain from the neurotoxin. When a stingray stings, it usually hits the calf or heel. It injects a neurotoxin into the puncture that is then activated by exposure to air and travels through the body causing pain and possibly even a slightly drunken feeling. The pain lasts for days if the neurotoxin is not deactivated. Scalding hot water denatures (breaks apart) the protein in the neurotoxin which limits the pain and trouble from the sting. The injury can still hurt some for days if not weeks or longer, but it will not hurt as much if treated. The sooner it is treated, the better. Almost all large lifeguard stands (when open) and ranger stations in state parks have water heated to exactly the right temperature to treat the sting, you just have to know what to ask for when you are asking for help. Unfortunately, the dad in our group asked a ranger that was brand new and she didn’t know what resources the park had. She sent them to a fire station and they sent him to the hospital. It took them a long time to get the proper treatment, so his ankle hurt for a longer time. After they finally got to the hospital, they soaked his foot in hot hot water for a couple of hours. Once it was feeling less painful, he left the hospital and his wife drove him back to Austin. (You should probably not drive after being stung because the neurotoxin can get to your brain and make you feel woozy, which would not be the best behind the wheel.) I am writing this very detailed post so that you know what to do if you or someone you are with ever gets stung by a stingray. Few people seem to know what to do about stingray stings, and the faster you get hot water, the less the sting will hurt. So, if you know to ask for hot water, you can limit the pain.
How to avoid being stung: In any salt water anywhere on earth, always shuffle your feet on the bottom rather than stomping. The stingray does not want to sting you (it is costly for the animal and it is a last resort defense). If the ray feels you coming towards it, it will swim away. Shuffling lets the stingray know you’re coming so you don’t surprise it. Normally, the sting occurs because you step down on the ray’s back and the tail pops up and sticks the barb into your calf to get your foot off of him. If you shuffle, this is incredibly unlikely to happen, though they can still hit you in the heel if you accidentally kick it (how I got stung in CA).
Do NOT stay out of the water! Do not let this post keep you from enjoying the incredible fun in nature that can be had at the beach. DO use this post to know how to treat a sting in case one should occur, because the faster you treat it, the less it will hurt. Knowing that you need scalding water is how you get fast treatment.
When we arrived at the beach, I should have been more cautious about having everyone get in the water. It is my experience that when the waves are calm on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, the animals are closer into the shallow water. The surf doesn’t toss them as much, so they come closer in to eat the delicious clams that are in the intertidal zone (area between high and low tide lines). So, when waves are calm, be more careful because there seems to be a higher likelyhood of meeting a jellyfish or stingray in the shallow water. If the wind is very very high, and the surf is very very high, look out for man-of-war (purple bubbles with tentacles hanging down) that are blown into shore by the wind. Ideally, you would swim when the surf is in the middle – active, but not crazy windy. Most of the time, this is not an issue and you can swim with no problem at all. I have been swimming in the ocean all over the world for 39 years and this is only the second time I have ever seen anyone get stung by a stingray (and the first was when I got stung at a beach which boasts the highest concentration of stingrays on the planet – Seal Beach in LA, CA). DON’T stay out of the water!
After the dad left the park, everyone continued swimming and playing in the sand. After a couple of kids got into some sea lice (jellyfish larvae), I asked the families to stay out of the water for the rest of the day. Sea lice give you what looks like an itchy rash under your swimsuit or rash guard. You can scrape them off with a credit card and rinse the area with fresh water and the rash should quickly go away. I felt like we had had enough run ins with wildlife for one day.
Once out of the water, the kids quickly started a favorite project of all children everywhere: digging trenches to divert water. I think that kids can dig in the sand for a whole day and still want to stay at the beach to dig some more. This is a great activity to help extend the attention span of a child. In “Last Child in the Woods,” Richard Louv states that research has shown that unstructured playtime outside helps extend children’s attention spans. I think that digging in the sand is probably the very best at doing that for children. The kids had a great time digging a trench that connected the tide pool containing warm water to the gulf’s cooler water. Once the trench was completed, they made boats out of leaves, feathers, and driftwood to send down the waterway from the tide pool to the gulf.
When we had finally had enough sun and sand for one day, we left the beach. While we were standing in the parking lot rinsing off our gear, a little rodent ran out of the plants on the sand dunes to drink the fresh water pooling from the showers. This little ground squirrel showed us why there are snakes in the sand dunes (and signs all over the park warning of snakes in the dunes.) Seeing this new critter was a great way to end our creature-filled day at the beach.