Stingray on ocean floor

Sea creatures to avoid

How to reduce the odds of a bite or sting while swimming in the ocean

Story by Sheila Paz

Nothing can spoil a perfect day at the beach quicker than a jellyfish sting, a stingray barb, a crab pinch or sand flea bites. To help ensure your lazy day at the shore doesn’t turn into an anxious wait at a local clinic, we reached out to Mike Wagner of Shore Beach Services for the best ways to avoid being bitten or stung while swimming in the Atlantic Ocean

Shark bites

While shark attacks are rare, they still happen. Our most common sharks — blacktips, spinners, sharpnoses, blacknoses and hammerheads — are not aggressive and pose little threat. While more aggressive species such as bull and tiger sharks are less common in local waters, they are still here and should be respected. Most sharks you could encounter while swimming near the shore will be less than five feet in length. Much bigger sharks patrol the Port Royal Sound and steep drop-offs around all of the sea islands. Depending on the severity of the bite, a quick trip to the ER or an urgent care office is most likely needed. If the incident is severe, call 911. 

To avoid a bite

  • Stay in groups. Sharks tend to bite when a person is by themselves.
  • Avoid the water at sunset or after dark when sharks are most active.
  • Do not enter the water if you are bleeding. A shark’s ability to smell blood is acute.
  • Do not swim with shiny jewelry, anything that reflects or anything that resembles fish scales.
  • Do not swim in waters others are fishing.
  • Avoid waters where seabirds are diving.
  • Avoid waters where fish are jumping.
  • Avoid bright-colored clothing. Sharks see contrast particularly well.
  • Use extra caution in murky waters.
  • Refrain from splashing or erratic movements that may draw a shark’s attention.
  • Avoid sandbars and steep drop-offs where sharks prefer to hang out.
  • Swim in areas with lifeguards, and get out of the water when sharks are spotted.
  • Never harass a shark. You will lose.
Bull Shark Swimming in Ocean
Bull Shark

Stingray barbs

Stingrays are considered docile creatures but will use their spiked tails for defense. The most common stingray species here are Southern, roughtail, smooth butterfly, spotted eagle, bullnose, cownose and Atlantic rays. Many tend to bury themselves in the sand near the shore, making them difficult to spot in our clean-but-murky ocean water. Atlantic stingrays have been known to hang out at Coligny Beach during the warm summer months when several cases of stingray stings have been reported. If stung, treat with hot water — as hot as tolerable, which is generally about 110 degrees. It might take up to an hour for the pain to settle. After the pain has subsided, go to the doctor to have the area examined as there may be parts of the barb left over from the stingray. Infections are common. If a person shows signs of anaphylactic shock, call 911. 

To avoid a sting

  • Shuffle your feet along the ocean floor when you enter the ocean. A pole or stick can be used instead of shuffling feet. 
  • Check lifeguard stands for colored flags and warnings. 
  • Slapping the top of the water can scare away stingrays. 
  • Wear water shoes. They can sometimes prevent the barb from penetrating.
Southern Atlantic Stingray moving across the sand
Atlantic Stingray

Jellyfish stings

Jellyfish are common during the warmer months, June through September. The most common jellyfish in local waters are harmless cannonball jellyfish. Contact with their short tentacles causes only minor irritation and itchiness. The jellyfish most responsible for ruining beach days is the sea nettle, recording up to 2,000 stings during the warmest weeks. The sea wasp is the most venomous jellyfish inhabiting our waters. Their potent sting can cause severe skin irritation and may require hospitalization. Lion’s mane jellyfish appear during the winter season and also sting swimmers, but those are less common. There also have been multiple sightings of the toxic Portuguese man o’ war, and while rare, those stings are serious. After a jellyfish sting, check the area to see if there are visible tentacles, and remove them. Other than that, a saltwater rinse and the use of hot water is recommended. 

To avoid a sting

  • Stay out of the water when you see several jellyfish washed up on the beach. 
  • Stay out of the water when swimmers around you are being stung. Jellyfish tend to travel in packs. 
  • Use extra caution during jellyfish season (June through September) 
  • Check lifeguard stands for colored flags and warnings.

Crab pinches

While crabs skittering along the sand are fun to watch and chase, their pincers are not pleasant. If you feel a pinch on your toe while wading through the ocean, it’s likely a warning pinch from a crab letting you know that you’re in its way. If you continue to annoy the crab, a more painful pinch could be coming. Pinches also are common during the sorting process after crabbing. If pinched, apply an antibiotic ointment to the area, and cover with a Band-Aid. An infection could occur, so keep an eye on it. 

To avoid a pinch

  • Wear water shoes. 
  • Swim or float instead of walking on the ocean floor. 
  • Lift crabs from under their armpits. Do not pick up crabs if their shells are not firm. 
  • Wear gloves while sorting crabs. 
Blue Crab on sand
Blue Crab

Sand flea bites

Unlike their name, these creatures are actually tiny crab-like crustaceans that leave quite the itchy bite. They often go by sand hoppers, beach fleas or beach hoppers. The best recommendation for sand flea bites is to let them heal on their own and not to scratch. Sometimes an anti-itch cream can be helpful.

To avoid a bite

  • Avoid the sand at sunrise or sunset. 
  • Avoid going to the beach after it has rained. 
  • Wear insect-repellent with DEET. 
  • Put a barrier between you and the sand such as a towel or chair.
Sand Flea on beach with blurred background
Sand Flea

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