There are many different types of fish found on the reefs near our shores. Some of them are difficult to see and even more difficult to identify. There are a few fish that are easy to spot and are familiar to many people, even visitors that have never been to the Florida Keys. Stingray is one of the animals that is easy to identify, even if you’ve never seen one before. Some stingrays look like underwater birds when they swim, while others move their body in a wavelike motion to get from place to place.
While many folks might not realize it, stingrays are actually fish. In fact, stingrays are a special type of fish called cartilaginous fish, which means that their bones are made of cartilage, the same material that makes up your ears and the tip of your nose. Sharks and skates are cousins to stingrays and also have skeletons made of cartilage. Stingrays glide across the bottom of the ocean on the sand and seagrass, searching for crabs, clams and other small animals to eat. Their “teeth” are flat plates that are used to crush their food.
Most folks recognize stingrays because they have the potential to cause us harm. Stingrays have a barb, which is located about three-quarters of the way to the end of their tail. This barb looks like a small Christmas tree and is made of keratin, the same material that makes up your hair and fingernails. This barb is not used to attack prey; instead, it’s used to defend against would-be predators. When used, the barb breaks off into the potential predator’s body, and the stingray eventually grows back a new barb. Many people are stung by stingrays that they’ve caught on the end of a fishing line or while they’re walking into the surf. Whether caught or stepped on, the stingray will defend itself by using its barb. The barb lodges itself into the skin and releases venom. If you are stung by a stingray, the best thing you can do is prevent the barb from coming out of your skin. The small Christmas tree shape of the barb can cause more damage if you try to pull it out yourself. You should seek medical attention immediately to have it removed by a professional.
Stingrays are best observed from a distance. These graceful swimmers are stunning and exciting when you see them in the wild. The best way to observe them is by a snorkel tour in their natural habitat. Another great way to see stingrays is by viewing them on the glass-bottom boat tour or even a kayak. Kayakers can see stingrays in the mangroves as well; you just might have to be patient and look a little longer to find them, as they are masters of camouflage.
Plan your visit to see stingrays at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park by visiting floridastateparks.org. Lindsey Crews is a park ranger at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.