Stingray Leaps Into Boat, Stings Florida Man in Heart

Blake de Pastino
National Geographic News Staff Writer
October 19, 2006
In a freak event eerily reminiscent of the death of Australian naturalist Steve Irwin, a Florida man was stung in the heart yesterday by a stingray that leapt into his boat.

James Bertakis, 81, was boating with his granddaughters near the town of Lighthouse Point, 15 miles (24 kilometers) north of Fort Lauderdale, when a three-foot-wide (one-meter-wide) spotted eagle ray bounded out of the water and fell into the boat.

(See Florida map.)

As Bertakis struggled to get the ray out of the vessel, the animal lashed its ten-foot (three-meter) tail, piercing the man's heart with its venomous barb.

The barb remained lodged in the man's chest, while the women brought the boat ashore and called for help.

Surgeons performed two operations on Bertakis yesterday and today, ultimately removing the 1-foot (0.3-meter) barb by pulling it through his heart. Bertakis was listed in critical condition late Thursday.

Comparisons to the recent death of Steve Irwin are difficult to avoid; Irwin died while filming a television special off Australia's Great Barrier Reef on September 4, when he was stung in the heart by a bull ray.

Irwin removed the barb from his chest before losing consciousness and dying at the scene.

Similarities between the two events may spark fear in beach-goers, fishers, and others who spend time in coastal waters, but they amount to little more than a bizarre coincidence, says Bob Cowen, a professor of marine biology at the University of Miami.

"I just cannot imagine any connection," he said. "I just think they're just two really unusual situations."

Spotted Eagle Ray

While he has never heard of a fatal attack by a spotted eagle ray, Cowen says it is quite common for the animals to leap out of the water.

The fish belong to a family of rays, including manta rays and devil rays, that are known for their frequent and flamboyant jumping, though the habit remains poorly understood by scientists.

"There are some theories out there [about why the rays jump]," Cowen said.

"One is that they're doing it as a means to shake off possible parasites. It may be a communication among individuals—they slap the water, and that sound can be heard. People have gone so far as to say it's because of a love of life. I don't know."

(Read related story: "Giant Jumping Sturgeon Stir Up Mystery in Florida River" [August 17, 2006].)

But Cowen does believe that when the ray fell into the boat, it was as much a shock to the ray as it was to Bertakis.

"The fish didn't hit the water, so it's freaked out," he said. "It's flapping around, it's jumping around, it's struggling. It's a relatively large fish, and [Bertakis] is picking it up, [so] as the fish was thrashing around, it ran the stinger into him."

The encounter seems even more fantastically random, Cowen adds, considering the elusive, secretive habits of the spotted eagle ray.

Eagle ray stings are extremely rare, he explains, because the rays spend much of their time swimming, unlike the more commonly seen stingrays that rest on the sandy sea floor—and often get stepped on.

"[Eagle rays] swim a lot more than typical stingrays, so you would not normally get them in a situation where they're feeling threatened. You're not stepping on them, you're not poking them, you're not biting them as a predator might, where they would have a need to use their stinger.

"What happened to Steve Irwin and what happened to this guy [yesterday] in particular … was just a fluke."

The scientist stresses that stingrays only use their venom-tipped tails in extreme circumstances, and even then as a defensive reflex rather than as an attack.

"They're really quite safe," he said. "Particularly the eagle rays are very docile animals when they're swimming around."

As for the likeness that yesterday's event bears to the encounter that felled Irwin, there's nothing to it beyond mere, if somewhat uncanny, happenstance, Cowen says.

"We're not going to see eagle rays jumping out of the water attacking boaters," he said.

"If it happens a third time then we have to start worrying about it," he added with a laugh.

"But I really think it's a fluke."

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