Steve Irwin's tragic death, in 2006, while snorkeling with a camera crew off Port Douglas, Australia, brings up many safe snorkeling questions for those of us who love exploring the marine landscapes. Somehow, it would have been less shocking if he had been scuba diving, considering the increased risks associated with deep sea explorations. Snorkeling is not exactly an extreme or dangerous sport. Add to that the fact that the stingray enjoys a great reputation for its gentleness and approachability.
Stingray injuries are quite painful and require good pain management as well as antibiotics and a tetanus update. Though the injuries are not considered dangerous, if you do get stung, you need to seek immediate medical attention. It is rare that the powerful spine penetrates a person's abdomen or chest. Steve Irwin's death, caused by the venomous barb piercing his heart, is extremely rare; it was a horrible, fluke accident.
Stingrays are well-known for their gentle, docile demeanor. They do not retaliate or attack humans. Even when its wings are stepped on, the stingray usually flutters away. Fishermen report the fluttering sensation under their feet, sometimes thinking they've stepped on a flounder. Even when hit and prodded with objects, stingrays are more likely to run away than defensively attack. We must not take their good nature for granted though. Even the smallest stingrays have the ability to do serious damage with their barbs.
Though some say you can have a safe snorkeling experience appreciating these graceful beauties up close, a good rule of thumb may be to avoid them while snorkeling or scuba diving. Shuffling your feet as you enter or exit the water stirs up the sand and will help you avoid unintentionally stepping on one. The places you'll find these docile creatures include areas where the bottom is sandy and the water is shallow, where sea grass grows, or near reefs and in lagoons.
If you are intent on experiencing stingrays first hand, holding and petting one (something they love), and feeling its velvety soft texture, you need to go on a stingray tour! A number of companies in the Grand Cayman operate safe snorkeling tours to Stingray City, a place in the Caribbean where stingrays gather, Actually, more than thirty stingrays call this warm, clear, aquatic paradise 'home.' The rays here are gentle and easy to play with, having become partially domesticated by the humans who love to hand-feed them.
Stingrays are members of the shark family and can give you a hickey if they try to suck on you.
Steve Irwin's deeply intuitive sense of animals and their behaviors gave him the ability to do things most of us will never do. As I look at the outrageous adventure of his life, the things I want to adopt are his zest, his verve, and his kindness and sensitivity to life around him. It's a piece we all need to develop as we explore the things that interest us. The world's coral reefs have been wounded, in some cases desiccated, by the careless, self-serving attitudes of explorers out for a good time. Would that each of us would take a page from Irwin's book when it comes to honoring and protecting our environment.
As always, we wish you safe snorkeling adventures as you travel the globe!