Here, where the sands of Seal Beach meet up with the mouth of the San Gabriel River, there’s often a hand-drawn sign planted in the sand:
SOVEREIGN NATION of RAY BAY
e pluribus stingem
The waters off this small beach town just across the Orange County line from Long Beach are so appealing to the sea creatures that an average of 400 people a year are stung, making it the stingray capital of America.
According to a local marine biologist, one-third of stingray-related injuries reported nationwide happened in these waters. And the number of human-ray altercations is going up. Last year Seal Beach lifeguards treated about 500.
With more than 200 stings so far this year — 100 in the last 30 days — lifeguards are on alert, warning families, kite-boarders and beginning surfers to be cautious in an area they call the “hot zone.”
Years ago, the strand earned the nickname Ray Bay for the thousands of rays it draws to its shallow waters warmed by a nearby power plant.
Hot summer days when the tide is low and the surf is calm are ideal conditions for stings, putting waders, splashers, swimmers and surfers in the same compact neighborhood as the rays.
Injuries generally peak in early August, when beach attendance spikes and as many as 50 beachgoers a day feel the painful jab of the stingray. On the hottest days, as many as 20 victims at a time mope at the lifeguard station’s triage bench as they soak their feet in near-scalding water, the only known cure for the sea creatures’ sting.
The stingray’s toxin-coated stinger causes a dull, burning pain to pulsate through the sting area, usually a victim’s lower leg. The injuries aren’t considered serious unless they get infected or the ray’s serrated barb breaks off.
Still, people react individually.
“I’ve seen 40-year-old men out here bawling their eyes out for two hours and 12-year-old girls just fine,” said lifeguard Eric Steele.
Jessica Kuo, 17, of Rowland Heights wasn’t at the beach 10 minutes before she felt the unpleasant jab of a stingray’s barb on the underside of her foot as she waded in the calm water. She thought maybe she’d stepped on a broken shell or a crab had snapped at her.
“The initial feeling is just shock because you’re like: something stabbed me,” she said.
A few minutes later, she was limping toward the lifeguard station, where lifeguards were waiting with a bucket of hot water to soak her foot to relieve the redness, swelling and pain.
The stings, for the most part, are tolerated as a fact of life. That is not to say there haven’t been attempts to chase away the rays.
About a decade ago officials tried moving them to a breakwater offshore. But they kept returning. When lifeguards tried to hold a stingray fishing derby to eradicate them, animal activists protested. Researchers even tried capturing them and removing their barbs, but they grew back.
“You could try to eradicate the stingrays, but the population is huge,” said Christopher Lowe, a marine biology professor and director of the Cal State Long Beach Shark Lab. “The animals keep coming from all directions.”
Seal Beach’s stingrays are among the most studied in the world, said Lowe, who has spent about a decade trying to determine why so many rays are attracted to Seal Beach.
The answer, he says, is complicated. The round stingrays found along the West Coast favor soft-sanded, shallow bottoms in warm-water estuaries. But as the coast has urbanized, the creatures have lost natural habitat and have moved to areas where development has replicated those conditions, such as breakwaters that calm the surf or power plants that warm the waters.
Ray Bay has both, as do Huntington Beach and San Diego. The hope, Lowe said, is that the restoration of other wetlands such as Bolsa Chica may provide new habitats for the rays and draw down the population at places like Ray Bay. In the meantime, lifeguards advise beachgoers to do the “stingray shuffle” by dragging their feet along the sand as they enter the water. The underwater vibrations scare the creatures off.
“The chances of getting stung are just very slim, so you shouldn’t be afraid of the water,” Kuo said, her foot still soaking in hot water. “But now I think I’m going to be a little afraid.”