Area divers react to stingray death

Susan Brickman
Staff Writer

No trainers ever warned them about the potential danger of a stingray's barb, but scuba diver Bill Borek and his family know as a rule not to get too close to the quick, generally docile bottom swimmers.
The Boreks, 10-year members of the MetroWest Dive Club in Natick, said the strike of the sharp barb "is a fairly well-known phenomenon," but stingrays are generally bottom dwellers and divers normally worry only about stepping on them, not encountering them at chest level.

"I just wouldn't get that close as a rule, unless they're used to seeing divers like the ones in Stingray City in the Cayman Islands," a tourist destination with a trained staff, said Borek, a Medway resident. Fishermen used to go to the area to clean their catch, which attracted the stingrays. Now the rays are used to getting a handout and people coming right up to them, he said.

"In the wild, that's not normally the case," Borek said.
"Basically, divers do a water shuffle of their feet along the bottom so they don't step on one," said Mark Bowers, president of the United Divers of Central Massachusetts.

Bowers, who has been diving for nearly 28 years, was surprised to learn that Australia's Steve Irwin, known around the world as the Crocodile Hunter, was killed early Monday by a stingray barb that pierced his heart.

"I would guess he was antagonizing the thing and must have gotten it angry," Bowers said. "That was its defensive action."

This sea animal is so nonaggressive, "more people are killed by white-tailed deer coming out of the woods (and crashing into cars) than by rays, and its (deer) reputation remains quite good," said Steven Bailey, curator of fish at the New England Aquarium.

Bailey and the aquarium staff were so surprised by Irwin's unusual death, and miniscule probability of it, they are trying to equate the likelihood of the accident with other potentially freak accidents, such as being struck by a meteor, he said.

"It's right up there with being gored by an elk that's frightened and happens to run over you," he said.

Bailey was bombarded by questions from the media Monday after he and his wife realized the news reports about Irwin's death were credible.

"We were sure it had to be a mistake," Bailey said by phone Monday afternoon. "Quite frankly, we never heard of a fatality by spining by a sting ray."

Most spinings occur from the knee down, generally after a swimmer steps on a stingray, which whips around and hits the shin or the lower part of the calf with its barbed spine. "If you get stuck in the heart with a pencil or a paper clip, or a spine, it's not a good thing," Bailey said.

Jelly fish have similar harpoon-like stinging cells, Bailey said, but those barbs are a good deal smaller than anything a stingray would have. As a result, it is the jelly fish venom, a protein, that causes a reaction, not the barb.

"To hear the spine pierced the heart is extremely unusual," Bailey said. "We are lamenting this very unfortunate and bizarre accident. Whether you resonated with his approach to educating people about animals or not, it's an extremely tragic situation," Bailey said.

According to reports from the Australian press, Irwin was not provoking the stingray, but it turned suddenly and struck him with its tail. But Peter Fenner, an authority on sea creatures who studies stingray injuries, told The Australian newspaper, "The flaps of the stingray would have been stimulated in some way - he may have been too close to it."
National marine stinger adviser Lisa-ann Gershwin stressed the rarity of attacks by rays. "It's just an absolute fluke. It's not the sort of thing that happens normally," Gershwin told The Australian.

"There is that message that wild animals definitely need to be respected, and there are do's and don'ts of what to do, and that's why it is so unfortunate," Bailey said.
"These are not aggressive animals and their strategy for discouraging trifling with them is completely defensive," Bailey said. "They are generally a docile group of critters.

"We folks here at the aquarium are afraid that something as sensational as this, an extremely unusual freak accident, would influence people who will not take the time to look into the animals. This could be the sum total of their knowledge."

Bowers and diver Ray Doucette of Stow, who has been going deep underwater for 44 years, said they do not mess with stingrays and are more afraid of jelly fish, whose sting can leave a nasty rash.

"There are certain things down there that I leave alone. They belong down there and I don't. That guy had a death wish," said Doucette. "He risked his life just for people's entertainment. He also did it for research. He was just in the wrong position."

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