There are a variety of species in the waters surrounding Baja that can bring you pain when you swim. These dread beasts can cause you to end your day at the beach ahead of schedule, but are rarely life threatening. The during the spring and summer months you need to remain aware of the threat. Having personally encountered all these pain vendors I assure you none of them is worth abandoning a day of swimming in the beautiful waters around Baja. These sea life pain vendors are not unique to the the waters of Baja and can be found almost world wide.
Stingrays are a common inhabitant of the waters surrounding the Baja peninsula. Although Baja's stingrays are no where near the size of the one that killed the famous "Crocodile Hunter", their wound can be extremely painful and in some cases dangerous.
The Eastern Pacific round stingray is also known as Urolophus halleri ranges from just a few inches in diameter as a youngster to as much as 12" as a full grown adult. They are harmless bottom feeders that feed on algae, small crustaceans and refuse on the sea bottom. The long whip like tail with a sharp toxic spine at the end is their defense mechanism and bane of swimmers. However painful the sting, they are usually little threat to the long term health of the wounded. With proper precautions they are no more reason to stay out of the water than honey bees are to keep you out of the forest.
The seasons to be aware of these little living 'land mines' of the sea' varies along the Baja coastline. In the Sea of Cortez you can plant your foot on one from early March to mid November anytime, anywhere. Sandy bottoms seem to be particularly popular with the fish then shimmies it's way into the sand to disguise itself from predators. In the late spring the rays are prolific in the swimming waters of the Sea of Cortez as they look for the fastest growing food sources in the shallows which warm more quickly. As the Pacific side warms more slowly the greater threat develops in the surfing areas as the very warm summer waters bring an abundant food source.
The "Stingray Shuffle" is something I learned a long time ago in Florida and is perhaps the best means of avoiding a sting. The fish doesn't want to be stepped on any more than you want to step on him. By sliding your feet across the bottom you give the fish time to get out of your way. Unfortunately, it can also be a great way to locate glass or other sharp objects in the sand. Watch where you are walking, but remember that stingrays bury themselves for protection and can easily be overlooked.
Shoes are virtually a waste of your time. Sneakers don't even slow down the impact of the sharp spine. Some 'reef walker' shoes have hard plastic that comes up the sides for a little protection. But the stingrays target is usually the soft flesh below the ankle bone or the top of your foot.
I swim the Sea of Cortez about 6 months a year, nearly every day. In 10 years I received only my second sting last week. (which inspired this article) I shuffled my way to shore but in the last meter or so, where I had never seen a stingray before, I stepped down squarely on one. I felt the squirm and tried to lift my foot, but before I could do so I received a personal record of three stings below my ankle. The second hit was the most painful, a good square, deep hit I knew I had found myself a stingray. The interesting thing about the wounds is the time delay. Yes, it hurts to have a large spine jabbed into your skin, but if you have ever been stung, you know the REAL pain comes seconds to minutes later as the toxin begins to destroy nerve endings at the wound site.
Stingrays will sting pets as well as you and small children without discrimination.
Treatment of stingrays
The toxin in a stingray wound is a protein based poison. Peeing on a stingray wound will not help, unless the humiliation takes your mind off the pain. First, inspect the wound for a part of the stinger bone. It is not uncommon for a part to break off within the victim. It helps to do this quickly, before the REAL pain sets in. If the wound is suspected of striking bone you should seek medical attention because there is a significantly increased risk of infection. My father was stung years ago in Florida and darn near lost his big toe.
The best way to relieve the pain is to soak the foot in the hottest water you can stand as quickly as possible. The protien based toxin begins to break down over 110°F and will reduce the pain. A Bayer product called Dombro is an analgesic and has been reported to add to the pain killing of a hot soak. The small bags are added to the water and a cheap and handy thing to stock in your medical kit. It can hurt like hell for 2-8hrs and inflammation to the wounded area can last for days. Flesh mortification and infection are the enemies in the days following the wound. If the wound appears worse or red streaks appear you should seek medical attention right away. If you have a heart valve, hardware or joint replacement between the wound and the heart or if you are at any risk for bleeding or increased risk of infection, it is recommended you seek medical attention.
Right up there with the pain levels provided by the sting ray the stone fish has toxic spines located along the back of the fish that can be elevated when the fish is threatened. The most common injury comes to fishermen, attempting to clear the undesirable fish from a lure. These fish are hard to spot, as they hide amongst the rocks and look just like them. Just a few inches long, these little buggers deliver a disorientate amount of pain.
Walking the shallows with an old pair of sneakers can be helpful with this danger. When you hook one we recommend you cut the lure free and write it off to a day of fishing. The fish fights and squirms as you attempts to free it and I have yet to see someone clear one from a hook without issuing a few extra b words on the subject.
It is a good idea to seek medical attention promptly. Since you most likely stepped DOWN on the fish, there is a likelihood of a broken spine in the wound. Certain species of stone fish in the western Pacific have some of the best natural toxins known to man in the spines and can be dangerous to human life. Like the stingray, treat the wound with the hottest water you can stand. it breaks down the protein poison more rapidly.
Jellyfish, Portuguese Man-0-War and Aqua Malas
These are not individual creatures, but colonies of cooperation. They are all found throughout the waters of the Baja peninsula. Jellyfish and Man-o-wars are the favorite food of the diminishing sea turtles, thus their population is on the rise. Although an interaction with any of these creatures can be painful, it is rarely dangerous in our waters.
An old Baja remedy for 'scaring away' these group of pain vendors is to scatter watermelon rind on the water before swimming. Scientifically, this sounds like something to get the kids back in the water or an excuse for throwing trash in the ocean.
Agua Malas (bad water) are also known as String of Pearls and are so small they are virtually invisible. They affect the skin with an alkaline agent and sting like nettles or a bunch of little mosquito bites. Usually found in turbid waters, these single celled organisms drift with the currents. A very effective preventative measure is a dive skin or even a t-shirt. The effects are just annoying and last only a few hours. If you find string of pearls, the only solution is to move to a different swimming area. Wash the affected area with white vinegar can be helpful, but usually the skin irritation disappears within a few hours.
Jellyfish are represented with a variety of species ranging from the size of a quarter to the white giants I saw in Los Cabos, measuring 12-18" in diameter. These colonies can self propel with a jet like action and form up in "schools" during mating season. They are difficult to see, particularly when snorkeling and the sting can be painful. A vast number of stings can be dangerous, but as a whole, the jellyfish is more of an inconvenience in the waters around Baja. Most common are the smallest of the species, about the size of a cupcake. Tentacles can extend down as much as 24" below the jellyfish and the toxin is a alkaline injected by a tiny harpoon at the end of the tentacle.
Man-o-Wars in my opinion are the most beautiful of the creatures we look at there today. they look like a tiny baggie of air floating on the surface of the water, usually about the size of a plastic wrapper from cigarettes but can get much larger. They have what looks like a deep blue or violet 'ink stain' training behind and below them in the water. The alkaline charged barbs are along these colorful tentacles paralyze their small fish victims and the tentacles retract to haul the catch up into the digestive part of the colony. They are much easier to see than jellyfish in the Sea of Cortez and are very beautiful. Resist the urge to pick one up, you will regret it. They usually blow around in clusters but can also be found individually Dive skins can help but are not always 100% effective.
Treatment of tentacle stings
All three of the above are an alkaline based toxin and this is where peeing on the wounded area can have some affect. Any light acid such as white vinegar can help relieve the pain. Like bee stings, the stinger is barbed and continues to inject more toxin into the skin even after being separated from the host. Rubbing the area away from your face with a credit card or other edged soft plastic object and help to left the barbs from the skin. Once you get the stingers out you can begin treatment of the pain. Then rinse the area thoroughly with urine, vinegar or other weak acid that won't cause harm to the skin. The pain should subside in a few hours and rarely presents a significant health risk.
As with any toxic poisoning the patient should be watched for unusual allergic reaction to the sting and you should get that person to immediate medical attention if difficulty breathing should arise. Cataclysmic reaction to the species of these creatures in the waters surrounding Baja are rare
Wrong - These aren't Puffer Fish or the dreaded Japanese culinary dare, the Blow Fish. Although they are related, these are actually Porcupine Fish here in the Sea of Cortez. The juveniles are often mistaken for Box Fish, as they can have very limited spines protruding from the body. Although there are varieties of this fish that have a toxin in the spines, these here in the Sea do not. They can be found almost anywhere in shallow water, and will eat just about anything edible you toss to them from bread to strawberries. They are very docile and slow and look down right goofy when the spines are retracted. When they fill with water or air they become all spinney and difficult for predictors to get their mouth around. They have very few natural enemies.
The rare injury from these Baja residents is comparable to a needle prick or stepping on a nail, although the spines can break off in the wound and lead to infection. Clean the wound and keep it medicated for several days and you should be fine. Should the wound worsen or fail to heal, seek medical attention.
With prevention and good awareness you should continue to enjoy wonder filled days at the beaches of Baja.