Southern California considered stingray capital of the world, but just how many are there?

Leanne Suter Image
Thursday, June 29, 2023
Why SoCal is considered the stingray capital of the world
Experts say over the last 50 years, the stingray population in SoCal has been skyrocketing, but with that statistic comes an increased chance of getting stung.

SEAL BEACH, Calif. (KABC) -- Stingrays are one of Southern California's most prolific sea creatures.

In some spots, they can create a virtual carpet on the sea floor so thick you can't even see the sand.

"The stingray population is probably at an all-time high," said Chris Lowe, the director of the Shark Lab at California State University, Long Beach. "We're talking about stingray capital of the world here, and it's mainly round stingrays. We have four species that are found in nearshore waters. Round stingrays are by far the most abundant, and they have the behavior that makes them most likely to be stepped on."

Tens of thousands of stingrays plus millions of visitors to the beach can make for a dangerous combination, as rays are quick to react with their barbed tails stinging those who step on the hidden rays.

"You can actually feel it moving up your leg," said Shark Lab graduate student Zach Merson. "It's like a burning pain that starts at the puncture site and just kind of works its way up."

Researchers from CSULB's Shark Lab have been studying these copious creatures for more than two decades. They use a beach seine or net to pull in a sample of what is hidden beneath the waves.

The team works in conjunction with Seal Beach, a notorious spot known as "Ray Bay."

"We have more than 30,000 of them just right in this area at the San Gabriel River," said Seal Beach Marine Safety Chief Joe Bailey.

Seal Beach lifeguards average more than 500 victims a year. Injuries are treated by soaking in hot water as the heat breaks down the toxin released by the stingray's barb.

In case you're wondering, urinating on the wound is an old wives' tale, according to Lowe.

Researchers haul in hundreds for Round Rays virtually every time they conduct a pull. Their record has been 800 rays captured in September, which is prime stingray season.

"They're way more abundant in the summertime," said Elizabeth Jahn, a CSULB Shark Lab graduate student. "They love the warm water, so the warmer the water is, the more likely you are to encounter a stingray."

Lowe said over the last 50 years, the stingray population has been skyrocketing. With that statistic comes an increased chance of getting stung.

"We estimate that there could be as many as 10,000 stingray injuries in Southern California alone," said Lowe. "That's probably the most anywhere in the country."

Researchers have to handle the rays with care so they don't get stung and the rays' delicate skin isn't injured. Team members use plyers to pick up the rays and clippers to cut off their dangerous spines, which they save for research.

Ben Perlman, a CSULB professor of biology, is studying the rays' biomechanics.

He attaches the cut spines to a special machine to study the speed of a strike. He also uses high-speed cameras and a fake foot to track when and how rays will whip their tails.

"We took our fake zombie foot and we stepped on different regions of the ray," he explained. "So we found out that they only really strike either vertically, or from the side, or some other angle, if you literally pin them down in the center of their body. If you pin them down right in the center, in the mid-region, they are most likely going to strike about 85% of the time."

He said removing the rays' spine is just like cutting a humans fingernail. It doesn't harm them and it will grow back in a matter of weeks.

Round stingrays stay relatively close to the beach, from water's edge to the surf break, the same area beachgoers love.

Lowe said the "stingray shuffle" is how you stay safe.

It's done just as it sounds; shuffling your feet as you walk in and out of the water.

"When the rays are buried and you're shuffling your feet, you're goal is to nudge them, not step on them," said Lowe. "So if you nudge them, they'll skitter away."

Jahn, who is studying stingrays, said rays can be really sneaky.

"They're really well camouflaged and they're flat," she said. "We call them sea pancakes. They stay at the bottom and blend in with the sand."

After being collected on the beach, the rays are measured and their sex is recorded before being released back in the ocean.

According to Lowe, several factors, including climate change and better water, quality have contributed to the record number of rays along the Southern California shore, but he said the main reason has been because the prime predators had disappeared.

The record return of white sharks in our waters may turn the tide.

"We suspect we're going to start to see a control of the stingray population, and that the population may start to come back down to levels that make more sense if you have predators nearby," said Lowe. "We think that where those aggregations of juvenile, white sharks form, we might expect to see a reduction in stingray injuries to the public."

Round rays can be found at some of the most popular beaches in the Southern California, leading to increased risk.

During Labor Day weekend in 2019, stingrays were responsible for 500 injuries in Orange County.

Researchers said the more they learn - like the fact that warm and flat conditions make the stingray shuffle mandatory - the more they can educate the public and help keep everyone safe.

"The goal is that everybody gets to share the ocean, including the animals that live there," said Lowe.