Stingrays: Dangerous or Not?

by B. N. Sullivan

Southern Stingray (Dasyatis americanaOur previous pictorial post about a dive site in the Cayman Islands called Stingray City generated a lot of interest, and quite a few questions about stingrays. We decided to tell our readers some more about these interesting marine animals.

Stingrays are found in warmer waters around the world. Stingrays are Elasmobranchs - a classification of fishes that include sharks and other kinds of rays, like Mantas and Eagle Rays. Elasmobranchs differ from other fishes in that their skeletons are made of cartilage rather than bone.

There are many species of stingray. The species pictured on this page, and in our photo essay about Stingray City, is the Southern Stingray (Dasyatis americana). It can be found in the warmer latitudes of the Western Atlantic, and throughout the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. They are found most often in relatively shallow waters where there are sandy bottoms, because that is where they find their food.

The diet of these creatures consists of small animals that live in the sand - mostly shellfish, small crustaceans and worms. The stingray feeds by hovering directly over the sand and fluttering the wing-like edges of its body disc to clear away the top level of sand. This exposes the little creatures that live just under the sand, and the stingray plops on top of them and eats them.

The photos in an earlier post on The Right Blue shows a Southern Stingray hunting for its dinner on a sand flat in the Turks and Caicos Islands.

The stingray's mouth and gill slits are on the underside of the body. You can see the mouth and gill slits clearly in the second photo of our post about Stingray City. The stingray's eyes are on the top of its body, as you can see in the photos on this page. When stingrays lie on the sand, they flutter their 'wings' a bit to cover themselves with sand until only their eyes and the end of their tail are visible.

Southern Stingray (Dasyatis americanaBut what about the 'stinger' that gives the stingray its common name?

The 'stinger' actually is a barbed spine that is located at the base of the stingray's tail. The barb contains a venom and is the stingray's defensive weapon. It does not use the barb on prey.

Stingrays spend a lot of time swimming just over the surface of sandy bottoms, looking for food. When they feed, and sometimes when they rest, they settle onto the bottom and lie flat. Thus, whether resting or hunting, they are subject to predation from above. If they are disturbed from above while they are on the sand, they quickly erect the barbed spine at the base of their tail as a defense.

The stingray's tail does not have a 'stinger' at the end of it, and they do not sting divers or prey by whipping their tails around. Most people who have had nasty encounters with stingrays have been divers and waders who accidentally stepped on a ray, or swam closely over one that was half-buried in the sand.

Many people will recall that Steve Irwin, the well-known Australian environmentalist and television personality, met his death after an unfortunate encounter with a stingray in 2006. Ironically, Steve was filming an underwater documentary about the ocean's deadliest creatures at the time of the incident.

Apparently Steve Irwin either laid down on top of a stingray, or swam just a few inches above where one was buried in the sand. The stingray did what stingrays do when some creature threatens them from above: it quickly raised the barbed spine at the base of its tail. Unfortunately, the barb pierced Steve Irwin's chest.

Irwin's death was sobering to divers and especially to underwater photographers. I think it is safe to say that every underwater photographer or videographer in the world has spent a considerable amount of time lying or kneeling on the sand to take pictures. Steve Irwin's death was a dramatic reminder to look carefully at the surface of the sand for evidence of a partially buried stingray before settling there.

So, are stingrays dangerous? In certain circumstances, yes; in most cases, no.

Here are some earlier posts on The Right Blue that feature stories and photos of stingrays:


  1. Bobbie, your good information and photographs never cease to amaze me. It was long overdue that I finally get my butt in gear and nominate you for a Bloggers Choice Award. You can check it out here:

    I can't think of a more deserving person than one who educates, appreciates and shares such beauty.

  2. Wow, Jenn. Thank you so much for nominating The Right Blue for a Blogger's Choice Award. We are touched and honored.

    Bobbie & Jerry

    P.S. Now that Jenn has nominated our blog, we hope that our regular readers will vote for The Right Blue for a Blogger's Choice Award.

  3. I was swimming among the sting rays in Cayman Island just 2 months ago.... They are lovely animals that do no harm to anyone, unless you care the hell out of them!

    My twins (9 years old) where snorkeling with them and touching them. They were just simply wonderful....

    Just like sharks, string rays get such bad publicity... :(

  4. I meant Scare, not care... sorry!

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  6. Your photos of the stingraysare amazing. Thanks for the info.

    Congradulations on your BCA nomination!

  7. Thanks for the information, I was asking myself the same question.

  8. Very informative, Bobbie - I thought they did whip their barbs around as a weapon. Good to know they are not a vicious species.

  9. This is very good information, and I really enjoyed reading! But for a project I have to do it would be nice if you included personality traits of the stingray. If you reply to this post could you give me some info about it? Anyways good job, and not everyone thinks that sharks and rays are evil perverts running around trying to kill us. I hope to hear from you soon.

  10. Hello Anonymous. Glad you found the article to be informative.

    Regarding stingray personality traits, I am not sure exactly what you mean. Usually the term 'personality traits' is reserved for humans (i.e., 'persons'). But if you mean do stingrays exhibit individual differences in the ways they behave, well of course they do. For example, some are more active, some less so. I don't know that anyone has actually studied individual variability in stingray behavior, however.

  11. Hello, I was at the Biloxi,Miss beach on Nov. 14, 2010. I was wading in the water for almost two hours. The water was warm, shallow, and clear, you could see the bottom. I had on shorts so I was wading at about 10 inches. I was video recording. I was about 30 feet out from the shore at the time and I decided to go another 10 to 20 feet. I started to take a step and I happened to look down and there 8 feet away was a stingray staring at me. He look like a baby, he had a wingspan of 18 inches and his tail was about two feet. I thought for a second to record him but I was so scared I turned around and ran as fast as I could for the shore. I didn't care that my shorts were getting all wet. I thank God I didn't step on that stingray. Merry Christmas, Laura

  12. nice information we learn in our school about stingray. i got lots info in the text well done im

  13. Hi. My name is Dirk. I've got slightly scraped by the barbed stinger of ( what I think ), was a blue spotted stingray. The burning sensation I'd like to compare to a snake bite. Although, the stinger just or, barely - just, punctured my skin on my left foot, it made me very much aware of the fact about say,± 15min or so later after ivgot stung, that the stinger was, or rather is venomous, it happened on my left foot, on my big toe and on the side of my foot. My leg actually started to feel numb after a while, but shortly afterwards, the pain started to subside slowly but surely, as I'm bust typing this message, I can still feel te muscles in my foot twitching a bit. It happened unexpectedly. Lesson learned!


We welcome your comments and invite your questions. Dialogue is a good thing!

Bobbie & Jerry