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Jellyfish & Stingrays Visit San Diego Beaches


In recent days, San Diego beachgoers have encountered giant black jellyfish and stingrays, two ocean phenomena that can cause pain when touched. We find out where they come from, where they have been sighted and what you do if stung.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Well, if they didn't know it before, San Diego beachgoers are now certainly learning the stingray shuffle. In the last week, nearly 100 swimmers have reported being stung by stingrays, some have been hospitalized. At the same time, black jellyfish have been spotted in San Diego Bay. They are a rare species, which can also leave a mark on an unlucky swimmer or surfer. Joining us to talk about jellies and rays and how to safely share the water with them is my guest Nigella Hillgarth. She’s executive director of Birch Aquarium at Scripps. Nigella, welcome.

NIGELLA HILLGARTH (Executive Director, Scripps Birch Aquarium): Oh, good morning. Good morning, Maureen. It’s great to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for talking with us. Now we’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Have you seen more stingrays and jellyfish than usual or have you even been stung by one? Give us a call with your questions and your comments, 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Now, Nigella, let’s start out with the jellyfish, the black jellyfish that have been seen near Shelter Island. First of all, they’re not really black, are they?

HILLGARTH: Not really. They’re very, very dark purple and almost red if you get light shining through them. They’re beautiful, I think.

CAVANAUGH: Now how rare are they?

HILLGARTH: They’re pretty rare but getting common, I think is the simple answer. They were first seen, I think, in the twenties and then we saw, I think, another big batch of them in the forties, and then they were seen in the eighties and described for the first time as a new species in 1999, so very, very recently.

CAVANAUGH: Where is it that they come from?

HILLGARTH: We’re not really sure. You know, they’re a mystery – a mystery jelly. We think they’re from the slightly deeper waters off the coast of Baja and when the water’s warm and the currents are changing, they occasionally come this way. And they often have blooms of jellies when there’s a lot of plankton, and we’ve seen a lot of plankton blooms recently, too, and so it’s a very good environment for these guys and they’re just coming a little bit too close to the shore and they get swept in.

CAVANAUGH: Now in just a few minutes, we’re going to be talking exclusively about all the stingrays and all the bite – stings that people have been talking about receiving from them, but what if a swimmer should brush up against one of these black jellyfish?

HILLGARTH: Well, they will get stung probably. In fact, they may even get stung if they don’t see the jelly because the tentacles tend to break off in the surf. But it’s like a really a nasty nettle sting.


HILLGARTH: It’s uncomfortable and it goes away after half an hour or so, and it’s certainly not dangerous. At least it’s very unusual to have a serious reaction.

CAVANAUGH: Are jellyfish easy to see in the water?

HILLGARTH: Well, this time they are. I mean, they’re hard to see, you know, in the ocean when you’re swimming pretty close to shore because you’ve got waves breaking and surf, and you really don’t see them. They’re often, they’re just under the surface.


HILLGARTH: But this time, they came right into San Diego Bay. And so I was very excited. I went down to Shelter Island and looked at them just all around the jetty just underwater. And, you know, it’s very clear there, so you could really see them.

CAVANAUGH: Now we kind of understand that stingrays sting when they’re stepped on and disturbed but when do jellyfish sting?

HILLGARTH: Well, jellyfish sting, you know, when you – accidentally, when you brush up against them.


HILLGARTH: Or if you, you know, touch them when they’re dead on the beach, they can still sting you.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, wow. I see.

HILLGARTH: Because those stinging cells still are like little injections if they’re touched, they’re triggered. And so if there happened to be any still on the jelly or any tentacles still around, and so don’t touch dead jellyfish as they are…

CAVANAUGH: All right, I’ll keep that – I’ll put that on my list of things not to do. Now, do we know why we were seeing these black jellyfish? Why they’re here now?

HILLGARTH: Well, as I was saying, they began to get more and more sightings and this in the beginning of the century now, we’ve seen them, I think, five times already. They were around…


HILLGARTH: …in 2005 and ’07 and ’08, so forth. And so we’re not really sure what’s happening. It may be that the waters are warming up, the currents are changing and there’s some climate change issues going on and so they are…


HILLGARTH: …being seen more regularly. That’s the theory anyway.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Nigella Hillgarth, executive director of Birch Aquarium at Scripps, and we’re talking about jellies and stingrays at San Diego beaches. 1-888-895-5727, if you’d like to join the conversation with your questions and your comments, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. So, Nigella, now we have people getting stung by stingrays. In fact, quite a few people reported these stings. Tell us about stingrays. Is San Diego their usual haunt?

HILLGARTH: Well, really, up and down the beaches of California, we get lots of stingrays. And we have little round rays here that are very close to shore. They’re feeding really within a few inches of water at this time of year. And so it is actually a pretty common occurrence to be stung during the summer. Lifeguards say, I think, it’s an average of, you know, about half a dozen a day.

CAVANAUGH: And how does a stingray actually sting?

HILLGARTH: Well, they have a little barb, which is like a very finely serrated knife that actually lies on the top of their tail just before there’s a little broad bit at the end of the tail and just on the top there is a barb. And so if they are, you know, disturbed like being stood on, for example, which is the normal thing that happens, they can whip that tail up and then barb from above or in the side. So that’s how people often get stung on their ankle or on the top of the foot.

CAVANAUGH: And why does the stingray shuffle work? First of all, what is the stingray shuffle?

HILLGARTH: Well, it’s not only a dance unique to San Diego – No, I’m just joking. It is – it’s a little bit like doing a Latin dance because you’re almost, you’re vibrating the sand, so you’re stomping along, not lifting your feet up, so shuffling along.


HILLGARTH: And creating a vibration that basically allows the stingray to, aha, somebody’s coming, I need to get out of the way.

CAVANAUGH: So they don’t really want to sting people.

HILLGARTH: Not at all. They’re really not aggressive animals. It’s purely self defense.

CAVANAUGH: We are taking your calls about jellyfish and stingray. 1-888-895-5727, and a caller – Let’s take a caller on the line. Erin is calling from Coronado. Good morning, Erin. Welcome to These Days.

ERIN (Caller, Coronado): …ah.


ERIN: Hi. Can you hear me?

CAVANAUGH: Yes, I can.

ERIN: Okay.

CAVANAUGH: What’s your question?

ERIN: I actually – We were out at what we call Stingray Point in Coronado, which is in the bay there, yesterday, boating and kayaking and tubing, and there were a lot of black jellyfish. And although we never came in contact with them, we were very careful to stay away, I noticed at some point our kids started getting really itchy. I mean, to the point of tears. And I was wondering, even though, if you don’t touch the tentacles of the jellyfish or come in contact with them, do they still secrete something that could do that to your skin?

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the call.

HILLGARTH: Well, yes, that’s a really interesting question. What, they were actually swimming, though, in the water?

ERIN: Kids were swimming and inner-tubing.

HILLGARTH: Yes. Well, they may well have been coming into contact with very small bits of the tentacles or even some of the cells that are associated with the jellyfish that can sting individually.

ERIN: Ohh...

HILLGARTH: That’s possible but then you’d expect to see a rash. I – It could’ve been something else entirely in the water. So that’s an interesting question.

ERIN: Okay, great. Thank you so much.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Erin. Let’s hear from Ken. He’s calling us. Good morning, Ken. Welcome to These Days.

KENT (Caller): Good morning, and it’s Kent, K-e-n-t.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, sorry, Kent. Thank you.

KENT: You’re welcome. Hey, I’ve been listening to this for a few days now and I haven’t heard anyone mention what you should do if you are stung by a jellyfish. I’m from an area where I’ve been bitten several times in the Texas Gulf, and we used a meat tenderizer, MSG, monosodium glutamate, whatever you want to call it. You come out of the water, you’re wet, just sprinkle that on and the pain’ll go away in just a couple of minutes.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that. What do you think about that, Nigella?

HILLGARTH: Well, I – You know, obviously, I’m not a medical person but I have heard that that is actually very effective but so is also dilute vinegar as well, which is what the lifeguards tend to use for jelly – this is jellyfish stings, right?

CAVANAUGH: Yes, exactly.


CAVANAUGH: So because it seems the jellyfish stinger, you have to get the stinger deactivated before it can actually come out. Is that sort of the way it works?

HILLGARTH: Well, it’s just injected a tiny little bit of toxin and so these tenderizers and the vinegar and so on is basically breaking down the little bit of venom, the toxin.

CAVANAUGH: Now I’m sure you’ve heard that some people actually say that you should urinate on that jellyfish sting. I don’t believe that there’s any scientific proof of that, Nigella, is there?

HILLGARTH: I have been told by medical people that that is not a good thing to do.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. I’m glad we have that cleared up. 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call if you’d like to join the conversation. Ed is calling from Torrey Pines. Good morning, Ed. Welcome to These Days.

ED (Caller, Torrey Pines): Hi, how are you? I’m actually the lifeguard supervisor here at Torrey Pines State Beach. So, yeah, we’ve had quite a few stingrays this year. I just wanted to point out that the stingrays, they – people will usually say that they’re really accustomed to coming in with warm water but I think that’s a bit of a fallacy. We’ve had fairly cold water these last weeks and we’ve had tons of stingrays. And I really think that it’s just a direct correlation to how many people are in the water, just the relative number that get hit or – because there’s more people in the water, basically.

CAVANAUGH: So you think there are more people and not more stingrays.

ED: Yeah, I think the stingrays are there, you know, 24/7 365. It’s just that when you get more people…


ED: …in the water that we get, you know, more publicity as to, you know, how many stingrays there – or how many stingrays injuries we’re having. But we’re getting a – You know, these are pretty high numbers that we’re getting right now, like just on our little beach, it’s, you know, about a mile and a half and we’re getting, you know, ten a day, I’d say, on average these last – this last week.

CAVANAUGH: So, Ed, what do you do when somebody reports a stingray sting? Do you take care of them in some way?

ED: Yeah, of course. We transport them to one of our entry ticket booths where we get our supply of hot water. And submerging the foot in hot – I missed the beginning of your show. You may have already talked about this. But…

CAVANAUGH: No, we haven’t.

ED: Oh, you haven’t?


ED: Well, the venom is a tremendous irritant as I’m sure your expert can attest to. It’s unbelievably painful. You get a lot of those toxins. The toxin covers the barb of the ray, and the barb usually almost always comes back out but the toxin stays in there and it’s – it burns terribly. And when you get all that toxin concentrated in one small area, like a foot, or even worse, in a digit like a toe, it’s extremely painful. It’s, you know, I’ve heard – I’ve seen 220 pound grown men, you know, crying like babies from these things. So they’re very, very painful. But for some reason, the protein toxin sort of denatures when you stick it into very hot water. So we’ll just get buckets of hot water and submerge the foot in as hot a water as the person can stand and the pain will not completely go away but it will diminish tremendously by just submerging that foot in hot water. From, you know, when people say on a one to ten scale, it’s a ten, they’ll, as soon as they get their foot in hot water, within a few seconds it’ll be – the pain will usually be around half of what it was when – before it went in.

CAVANAUGH: And, Ed, are you seeing any allergic reactions to these stings?

ED: Very, very rarely. I’ve been a lifeguard for 34 years. I’ve never seen an allergic reaction to a stingray bite, although since it’s an animal toxin, it’s certainly a possibility. We let them soak for usually, you know, about half an hour and, you know, when they take their foot back out of the water, the pain comes back a little bit but usually not to the level of before the submersion though.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you for calling in. Any other tips that you might have for beachgoers since you are – you’re a lifeguard supervisor.

ED: Right.

CAVANAUGH: Any tips for, you know, keeping yourself safe and sting free at San Diego beaches?

ED: Well, yeah, one of the things, we do the stingray shuffle and we recommend that. We also recommend some stomping, you know. It’s the shuffle and then a stomp. And we kind of think the reverberation of stomping on the bottom also kind of tends to disperse them. And the best advice that I have is to swim where there’s other people. You know, if you go off on your own, say, like to the south area of Torrey where there’s not many swimmers, that’s a really bad area since, you know, the rays are, you know, as your expert has said, they don’t want trouble, they just want to sit by themselves, you know.


ED: They – they’re going to frequent the areas where there’s few swimmers. And if there’s a bunch of swimmers in the round – in the area, then you’re far less likely to get hit by a ray.

CAVANAUGH: I appreciate your call in. Thank you so much, Ed.

ED: …a pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: And I’m speaking with Nigella Hargarth – Hillgarth here. She is executive director of Birch Aquarium at Scripps. Nigella, what about this theory that it’s more people? There’s probably the same amount of stingrays just more people, more feet in the water.

HILLGARTH: I think that’s definitely part of it. Obviously, the more people, the more chance of getting stung. But I think it’s also this is the time of year when stingrays do come much closer to our beaches because that’s where the sand crabs and the polykete worms and the mollusks that they feed on are aggregating and so you will get large aggregations of stingrays at this time of year that you wouldn’t in the winter even if you had a lot of people going into the water. And the other thing is that it’s also breeding season for stingrays and I don’t know if any of these are breeding beaches but that is a strong possibility. That’s exactly what you get up in Orange County, Seal Beach…

CAVANAUGH: Right, right.

HILLGARTH: …you get these – a lot of issues because they’re breeding so much. And another really interesting sort of natural history fact is that the rays in very shallow water are the juveniles and the males. The females are actually in deeper water.

CAVANAUGH: Right, that’s what we heard about the great white shark, too. We spoke about them only earlier this month, how this is birthing season for them, too, and so the young great white sharks are off the California coast and you need to watch out for them although they’re not really looking to enter into – interact with human beings in any way. But I’m wondering since, okay, now we have great white sharks, stingray, jellyfish. Are there any other critters in the ocean near the shore, Nigella, that swimmers ought to look out for?

HILLGARTH: It sounds terrifying, doesn’t it?


HILLGARTH: Well, I think it’s really important to remind people that the ocean is a wilderness. This is like hiking not only in a national park but in a wilderness area. When you go into the ocean, you’re going into somebody else’s world and you have to remember that there are very – all sorts of different animals in the ocean, all sorts of different conditions. You know, you started with the animals, it’s the rip currents, it’s all sorts of things that can impact you. So you have to be alert when you go in the ocean.

CAVANAUGH: Now, if you are – if you really do want to see ocean wildlife that’s not in an aquarium, where is the best place to go in San Diego to see that?

HILLGARTH: Well, actually right now, just where we were talking about, off La Jolla Shores, for example, where the stingrays are. At the moment, there is an amazing event that occurs in really July, August and September, where you get hundreds of leopard sharks coming in. And so the cove, La Jolla Cove end of La Jolla Shores, literally, if you are waist deep in water, snorkeling there, you can be surrounded by beautiful harmless sharks. It is an amazing wildlife sight. Or you can snorkel, for example, off La Jolla Cove and there you can even see green turtles have been turning up in that area, probably part of the turtles that live in San Diego Bay. And you will see many species of sharks, if you’re lucky, that are harmless to humans and very, very beautiful, as well as all the wonderful things that live in our kelp forests.

CAVANAUGH: San Diego’s ocean wilderness. Thank you so much, Nigella. I appreciate it.

HILLGARTH: It’s been a great pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Nigella Hillgarth, executive director of Birch Aquarium at Scripps. Now, Birch Aquarium in La Jolla has picked up two of the black jellyfish which are on display if you’d like to go and see them. Birch Aquarium is an occasional underwriter of KPBS. If you’d like to comment, please go online, Coming up, we explore the curse of the good girl, as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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