Dangers of the Deep...Peligros de la Playa

Man eating sharks, venomous stingrays and deadly bacteria are just a few of the dangers lurking in the salty waters of the Lower Laguna Madre and Gulf of Mexico. Throughout the bay and surf there is a plethora of sharp teeth, toxic barbs and lethal microbes that can inflict intense pain or even death to those who encounter them.

Sharks have attacked 861 people along the coastal United States since record keeping began decades ago according to the Florida Museum of Natural History that tracks shark attacks throughout the nation. Florida leads the country by a long shot, tallying 500 confirmed, unprovoked attacks, and Texas is tied for a distant sixth with a total of 28.

Three of those Texas encounters were fatal, and the last occurred in 1962 when a surf fisherman wading out on South Padre Island was bit in the leg and died from loss of blood. Don Hockaday, who heads up the University of Texas Coastal Studies Lab on the island, recalled that his father, Dr. John Hockaday, treated the man briefly, before having him rushed to the hospital.

"The story my dad got was that the man was surf fishing across from the old Tiki resort on the Island and had a stringer of fish tied around his waist," Hockaday said. "The shark was probably going for the fish when it hit his thigh. Apparently, he was able to crawl to shore but was bleeding badly, and by the time they got him to my dad's office in Port Isabel he was near death."

No one apparently got a good look at the shark that accounted for the fatality 44 years ago, but there are some monsters lurking in the bay and surf. Veteran tarpon fisherman Larry Haines recalls a big tiger shark he encountered one fall in the South Padre surf that he estimated to be at least 10 feet long. "We were fishing pretty far down the beach near the Mansfield cut, and there was just a tremendous amount of bait in the water," Haines said. "We would hook up with these big 30 pound jack crevalle and then wham! This huge tiger shark would take the whole fish. This happened several times, and we finally just left. It makes me incredibly nervous now to wade out in waist deep water, and I definitely keep a look out for any sign of sharks."

Worldwide the number of unprovoked shark attacks has grown at a steady rate over the past century. Overall the 1990's had the highest attack total (481) of any decade. However, this statistic is not necessarily an indication of more aggressive sharks, but rather the result of more people spending more time in the water and increased reporting of shark encounters. Shark populations are actually declining throughout the world as a result of over-fishing.

More than 350 species of sharks inhabit the world's oceans, but three species have been implicated as the primary threats to man, and they are the white, tiger and bull shark. The white is not normally found in the Gulf of Mexico, but the bull and tiger prowl the surf of South Padre. The bull shark reaches a length of nearly 12 feet and the tiger can measure close to eighteen feet and weigh more than 1700 pounds.

The good news is that surfers, swimmers and wade fishermen are not a shark's preferred food as they are accustomed to eating marine creatures such as fish and seals. There are millions of people in the water every day, particularly in the summer months, but the chances of a shark attack are remote. Sharks do not have particularly good vision, and sometimes a surfer or swimmer might resemble prey.

There is another denizen of the deep that can inflict serious pain and if its sting is left untreated possibly lead to death. The stingray is a common bottom dweller in the bay and surf, and if stepped on by a wade fisherman or swimmer they will whip their barbed tail into the foot or ankle of the unsuspecting victim. The sharp spine at the base of the tail is filled with venom and can cause intense pain.

Captain Scott Sparrow of Arroyo City will never forget his encounter with a stingray several years ago while wading in the bay. "As soon as it hit me I knew what had happened, and I just yelled Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! The water was only about six inches deep, but I knew stingrays will get that shallow. I just didn't shuffle my feet like I should have. It was a very sharp pain, and it began to bleed profusely."

The bay and gulf are home to several species of rays armed with stinging barbs, and the Atlantic and southern are two of the most common. These flat, disc shaped and brownish colored rays tend to partially bury themselves in the sand and can be very difficult to see.

Sparrow was competing in a tournament when hit, and despite the pain he kept fishing. Returning home that afternoon he felt bad and went to bed. He awoke from a fitful and feverish sleep with a very swollen foot. When he finally got to a doctor, he learned that he had contracted one of the most lethal bacterial infections known to man, the potentially deadly vibrio vulnificus.

According to the most recent statistics available from the Texas Department of Health, there were 32 reported cases of vibrio vulnificus in 2004 and eleven fatalities. Vibrio is a bacterium in the same family as those that cause cholera. It is naturally occurring in the warm seawater of the Laguna Madre and Gulf of Mexico.

In addition to vibrio bacteria entering thru a wound, it can also infect a person who eats raw filter-feeding shellfish such as oysters and clams. Individuals who have immune compromised conditions such as liver disease are particularly susceptible. Half of the victims with vibrio vulnificus infected wounds require surgical debridement or amputation. When infection spreads to the blood stream it causes death 50 percent of the time.

Scott Sparrow was fortunate and is on the list of survivors. "My ankle is still a little stiff and somewhat swollen with scar tissue, but considering how bad it could have been, I feel lucky."

While sharks, stingrays and vibrio vulnificus are among the most dangerous threats to saltwater enthusiasts, there are several other creatures that pose hazards. During the summer months, there are days when the tides wash ashore thousands of jellyfish onto the beach at South Padre. The stinging tentacles of the sea nettle, Portuguese man-o-war and cabbage head can all inflict painful welts on tender skin.

If you come in contact with a jellyfish, do not rub the wound and remove the tentacles with a gloved hand or towel. Rinse the wound immediately with seawater and soak it for 30 minutes with vinegar or rubbing alcohol to inactivate the toxins.

The spiny sea urchins that cling to the jetties are also capable of puncturing skin and producing a painful burning sensation. One of the most common fish in the bay, the catfish, also has sharp fins. They can be locked into a rigid extended position that can easily puncture a hand or foot. Cleansing the wound and soaking in hot water is recommended for puncture wounds of the sea urchin and catfish.

While there are many potentially dangerous creatures in the Laguna Madre and Gulf of Mexico, with awareness and proper precautions you can enjoy the bay and surf and minimize encounters with harmful marine animals.

Sidebar: Avoiding Shark Attacks

Always stay in groups, because sharks are more likely to attack a solitary person.

Do not enter the water if bleeding, because a shark's sense of smell is highly sensitive. Do not wade fish with a stringer attached close to your body.

Avoid wearing shiny jewelry because reflected light resembles the sheen of fish scales.

Sidebar: Avoiding Stingray Encounters

Do the stingray shuffle when wade fishing, as when you carefully shuffle your feet you are less likely to step on a stingray.

Wear protective foot gear that covers well above the ankle and is tough enough to repel the sharp barb of a stingray.

If struck, immediately clean and disinfect the wound and soak it in hot water for 30 to 90 minutes as this helps break down the toxins.

Seek medical help if the barb remains imbedded and be alert to signs of infection. Vibrio vulnificus must be treated promptly with specific antibiotics to prevent serious infection.

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Copyright 2007 Richard Moore