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Dangers of the Deep

On 4th September 2006, well-known conservationist, zoo owner and television personality Steve Irwin had a particularly bad day at the office. Maybe he was up to his usual daredevil tricks; maybe it was just plain bad luck; whatever happened, a brief encounter with a stingray ended his life. Steve Irwin, 44, died after being struck in the chest by the stingray's barb while he was filming underwater for a documentary in Queensland's Great Barrier Reef. Stingrays are common and popular features at Hurghada’s dive sites. Could the same thing happen here, to a snorkeller or diver?

There are half a dozen species of stingray in the Red Sea, ranging from the blue-spotted stingray at 90cm long to the dark spotted stingray, which can be up to 3.2 metres long. The family gets its name from the creature’s barbed or serrated tail, which can inject powerful venom. The barb can be up to 20cm long.

The venom produces a wide range of symptoms, from localised pain to cardiac arrest, however it is unlikely to be fatal unless the wound is to the chest or abdomen. Although stingrays are one of the most common causes of marine life injuries, fatalities are rare, because most injuries are to the feet when a swimmer treads on a stingray. In Australia, where Steve Irwin met his nemesis, there is only one other recorded stingray fatality - in 1946.

Stingrays are not known for their threatening behaviour, and they do not use their barbs for hunting - only for defence. The larger rays bury themselves in the sand, so accidental contact is possible.

Stingrays are not only the marine creatures that have powerful defences. So what of the other dangers of the deep? Eagle rays have between two and six barbs on their tails. Other common venomous creatures are scorpion fishes (which includes lionfish and stonefish) and cone shells.

As with stingrays, scorpionfish are mainly a problem for swimmers who accidentally tread on them. Meanwhile, stonefish are the biggest danger, both because they prefer shallow water and because they have the most toxic venom. Scorpionfish are often well camouflaged, and the filamented devilfish (aka the Red Sea Walkman) typically buries itself in the sand. Divers may therefore accidentally come into contact with these fish if they kneel on, or touch the bottom - be it sand or coral.

Lionfish have a reputation for attacking divers when cornered but this certainly does not match my own experience as an Instructor. Accounts of attacks state that the fish lowers its head and darts forward, yet the only response that I have seen is for it to turn sideways on. This may be an effective defensive strategy, but not suitable for attacks - no fish can swim sideways! In any event, lionfish injuries are not severe compared to other members of the scorpionfish family.

Seemingly innocuous, cone shells are hunters and perhaps one of the most dangerous of marine creatures here. They have a harpoon that can reach any part of the shell, which injects a cocktail of neurotoxins that paralyse or kill their prey. These toxins are so powerful that there is considerable interest in them for medical research. Cone shells are common in Hurghada, and collecting attractive shells is regarded as a harmless activity… imagine my horror when a guest of mine reached to pick up a textile cone shell recently. Cone shells are known to be responsible for several fatalities.

Many people fear jellyfish. The most common jelly in the Red Sea is the moon jelly, Aurelia aurita, which can be distinguished by the four circular reproductive organs at the centre of the body. This jelly can cause, at worst, brief tingling; it is perfectly safe to swim when these are in the water. More dangerous are the Portuguese man of war and the sea wasp - neither are strictly speaking jellyfish - but these are rare around Hurghada.

Banded eel snakes are venomous, but they cannot open their mouths very wide, so the risk of a bite to an adult is small.

So, with all these dangerous creatures around, what are the risks?  Overall, the risk of injury is relatively small, and the risk of fatalities is minimal. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t want it to happen to me, or to one of my guests!

So what can we do to reduce the risk?

1. When swimming or snorkelling, don’t put your feet on the bottom.
2. When diving, avoid contact between any part of the body and the bottom (reef, sand or whatever)
3. When swimming or diving, don’t touch anything, especially shells!

Whatever the source of an aquatic injury, the first aid procedures are the same. If possible, remove any barbs or tentacles, then apply heat - as much as the patient can bear - for 30 to 60 minutes. Marine venoms are usually proteins that function at temperatures of around 30 degrees, and are destroyed at 40 degrees.

A practical way to do this on a dive boat is to hold the side of a cup of hot water against the injury site. Keep up the pressure: increasing the pressure increases the heat.

Safe Diving!

 

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