Do the stingray shuffle!

When walking in the sea, swish your feet along the bottom, urges Mark Amery. You’ll avoid crab bites, flounder slips or even – with freakish bad luck – a gash from a scared whai repo’s tail.

Whai repo/stingray in Wellington. Photo: CM Stevens

My friend sneaks a tiny duty-free bottle of The Kraken rum into the hospital and the humour takes the edge off – on the bottle’s side a giant friendly octopus, eyes bulging, has a tiny tall ship in its tentacle-y gasp. Sometimes, you have to laugh. 

It’s May and I’ve just received the tattoo of a stingray. I’m in post-op recovery at Wellington Hospital where they cleaned and sewed up a deep eight centimetre gash running up my right lower leg after a rare Paekākāriki beach stingray encounter. The doctor records: “Foreign bodies – large spikes into deep posterior compartment.”  

Stingrays or whai repo love our warm shallow coastal waters, settling in the sand to shuck up crabs and shellfish. I adore them, but at a wary distance. Like most of us, when I step in the water I go along with their shy invisibility and forget they are there. This is my first close encounter in 25 years swimming at this beach, and even now I’ve yet to sight one here. So, taking one for ‘the team’, I’m here to encourage doing the stingray shuffle.

Fact: stingrays do not attack. A day earlier my partner Hannah and I are helping our middle child Solly get ready to fly the coop – head to Canada with a two year work visa. He calls for one last swim in the beautiful Paekākāriki surf and, while it’s mid May, I know behind the biting wind the water can still be warm.

It is. It’s wonderful tumbling in the surf, staying in just enough to feel refreshed and re-energised after more than a week in bed with Covid-19 – body surfing the last waves in the shallows to get the upper body fully dunked.

Paekākāriki beach. Photo: Mark Amery

I stand up to follow Hannah and Solly out of the water. I take a moment to see if I can spot our dog Jojo – often to be seen paddling in the shallows towards me. But for once I can’t see him in the sea or on the beach, until I spy him up by the rocks where Hannah is already drying off. And then – I step on it. 

At first, I think it’s a flounder. For the first summer in 25 years here I’ve stood on a few this year – and even seen someone out with a floundering net. We’ve also had orca come in real close to the shore hunting the rays, so I shouldn’t be surprised. The water we are told is getting warmer. I can’t see anything with the swirl of sand and surf, but I do know what I have stood on is too big and wobbly to be a flounder. It’s like stepping in a warm pudding.

In an instant I both know but don’t want to know it’s the luxuriant plush back of a stingray and, as I step clear, I am cut down by a violent strike to my right leg. I wouldn’t say I feel pain, more a kind of electric-shocking whoosh as if I’ve disjointed something. The evidence is more the gushing of blood into the water and the flash of some white that suggests a deep cut.

I immediately wonder if this is a shark bite, but then the pudding feeling and the cut suggest not. I fall to my knees and cry out and Solly comes quickly. Somehow he supports me with others coming quickly to stagger up to the brightly painted hexagonal picnic table above the Henare Street beach. Friends and those newly met, dog walking or happening to look out the window, have seen me and come from several directions. One is a vet nurse.

A stingray’s tail has a serrated series of teeth-like spines, designed to cut really well. A sculptor friend of mine Chris Charteris has revived the craft from his Kiribati roots of turning these into human weaponry, and I’ve studied some of the originals with him next to his own at Auckland Museum. 

The one stingray injury I do know of – there at the back of my mind when I come out of the water – is the well known 2006 tragic death of loveable Australian nature TV larrikin Steve Irwin, where the barbs pierced his chest. Etched in the memory was the fact that the barbs at the tail’s tip contain poison that quickly enters the bloodstream. And it‘s this fact that is worrying me.

This poison quickly causes fainting and nausea, and I feel it as people gather around me, thankful they are there so I don’t pass out. But it passes in a fast-flowing few minutes.

Hannah runs with others to get our car – a 111 call has ascertained a car trip to Paraparaumu will be quicker than an ambulance coming from Porirua. Bundled in the back and looked after by the young man we were due to be celebrating with a farewell fish curry we make it to Team Medical and a wheelchair. I am still in shock. The medical staff are amazing but aren’t accustomed to stingray injuries – they have to commandeer a big rubbish bin to have a vessel wide and tall enough to submerge my lower leg in hot water – simple as that, this kills the venom and, along with the laughing gas, helps dull the pain.  

It’s clear though an X-ray will be needed to assure that my friend hasn’t left anything in my leg. An ambulance takes me into Wellington hospital (for once I really appreciate the smooth ride of Te Ara Nui o Te Rangihaeata) and a full inspection in Emergency suggests surgery is needed. Plus numbness in the top of my foot suggests correctly that a nerve has been severed. A two night stay for me.

In the 40 hours from beach to my return home I’m looked after, by my count, by more than 30 people – each making you feel the wonder of humanity.

I wondered for a while about sharing what happened to me publicly. Why unduly scare people out of the water? Social media is terribly good at spreading fear. Stingray injuries are rare enough for me not to be able to find national published stats, yet common enough for there to be occasional summer news stories. Many small cuts, a few more painful. There has been a solitary death recorded – a swimmer in Thames in 1938.

In the hospital I am something of a curiosity to staff, but my injury not unknown to the most experienced. Yet in terms of risks there are clearly far more present life-threatening dangers. In my village there are those who swim daily, some incredibly, all year round. For us all I provide a cautionary tale about appreciating what we don’t see and giving it fair warning we’re coming – simply shuffle your feet along the sand to let them know you’re coming – it is said they will feel the vibrations.

I read that an estimated 1500 to 2000 people are injured in the US every year. There is of course an awful lot more people and coastline. At busy Seal Beach, near Long Beach California an estimated 16,000 stingrays cause about 400 injuries a year. Michael Plees, a surfing instructor has been ‘stung’ (he says in a fascinating NPR article) 21 times in 30 years and teaches surfers the stingray shuffle. Injuries are common enough there for them to have signs.

After years of being bitten by crabs I’m already in the habit of swishing my feet along the bottom of the sea as I walk, as I know they scamper. These days I am far more rarely bitten. But coming out of the surf, I am clearly not as careful. I need to keep shuffling. And suggest you do to – not just for your sake but for those creatures you step on.

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