Marine bites and Stings

Tiger have teeth and spines.
Carl Hyland - copyright
Everyone still remembers how the famous Crocodile Hunter and television personality, Steve Irwin died because of a stingray barb lodged near his heart.

This time a 10 year old boy managed to escape alive after a long barb impaled the boy in his stomach. This young fellow and his family were fishing in New Zealand when they spied upon a group of fisherman hauling out a stingray from the water. The fishermen wrestled with the stingray and tried to use pliers in removing its barb when suddenly it flew nearly 8 feet towards the young man, hitting him in the stomach.


The boy’s father reacted almost immediately and tried to yank the four inch stingray barb out of his son’s stomach.

It would have been a very bad decision and good thing there was a nurse nearby who yelled not to pull it out. Pulling the barb would have caused air to gush in the stomach and destroy the air pressure of his lungs; furthermore, it’s not advisable to remove any impaled objects without medical intervention as it will increase bleeding. The nurse did however keep the barb from going further into the lad’s body.

Unlike Steve Irwin’s stingray barb, the boy was immediately taken to the hospital, underwent surgery and survived the incident.

Stingrays do not usually use their barbs unless at the last defence of their lives especially against hammerhead sharks, their main predator. The barbs themselves contain a form of weak poison that causes pain and alters the heartbeat of animals and humans. There are very rare fatalities of stingray barbs and usually the victims die because of blood loss and shock.

A stingray barb similar to this, caused the death of Steve Irwin.
Carl Hyland - copyright
Like most marine creatures, stingrays, venomous fish such as bullrout, Scorpionfish and Guernard, all inject venom with barbs. Here we are talking about venomous fish, not poisonous and we shall leave that to another time. Included in the venom injecting category we could include jellyfish and other stinging marine creatures.

Firstly, I am well qualified to speak on this subject as I was a senior training Officer for a number of years with the District Ambulance Service then the Northern Senior Officer including O.H &S with an ambulance training organisation. I have trained hundreds, if not thousands of people in first aid and in particular Marine Bites and stings.

I have also had the pleasure of working closely with and liaising with the late Dr Straun K . Sutherland, who was the mastermind behind anti venom and the head of the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories.

The delicious guernard perch but also extremely painful
Carl Hyland - copyright

Let’s keep it basic, If I were to have in my first aid kit any items for the treatment of marine bites and stings, they would be bandage’s for pressure immobilisation, vinegar, stingose, and where possible, hot water.
Most marine stings involve an open wound and your first course of treatment is to calm the individual down.

If they are unconscious, manage the airway, breathing and circulation. Do not get stung or envenomated yourself.

Remove any stings spines, except where the spines have penetrated a body cavity. The person is usually in a lot of pain. Most venom associated with fish stings and this includes flathead, guernard, scorpion fish, and stonefish are protein based and they can cause immense pain, sometimes to the point where the victim becomes senseless or irrational. The quickest method for dealing with a sting is to flush the area with warm to hot water. Do not use boiling water. This gives immediate pain relief. If the pain continues, seek urgent medical aid.

Some say that rubbing slime off the belly of flathead will alleviate the stinging sensation, but this has yet to be proven.

Fair dinkum, the hot water works. I had an incident with my wife in our boat recently where she accidently got nailed by the main spike off a gurnard. Immediately, she went into shock, her hand swelled up and she was incoherent. Not having any hot water with me, it was a mercy dash (some 2-3km’s) back to the home base, where her hand was placed under the hot water tap. Relief was immediate, so much so, that we went back fishing (with a hot water thermos this time).

Some fish, such as elephant fish have large dorsal spikes and also gill spikes which can have exactly the same effect, injecting venom and sometimes breaking off in the skin. The treatments are the same, hot water and if in doubt, seek medical attention. Any penetrating wound should be seen by a doctor as sepsis can set in and a tetanus shot may also be required.

Below is an excerpt from a newspaper clipping……Elephant fish punctures chest of boy, 10

RACHEL YOUNG Last updated 13:27 13/04/2012

A young Canterbury boy was injured after a thrashing elephant fish punctured his chest.

A Westpac rescue helicopter paramedic said the 10-year-old boy was yesterday fishing with his dad at Amberley Beach, north of Christchurch, when they caught an 'unusually large' elephant fish.

When the boy picked it up, the fish thrashed and its 7-centimetre-long spike punctured the boy's lower chest.

His dad drove him to Amberley Medical Centre, but because of the risk of infection and internal damage he was flown by helicopter to Christchurch Hospital about 6.30pm.

'For puncture wounds you can look OK, but inside can be damaged.'

The paramedic, who himself had been injured by an elephant fish, said it would have been 'bloody painful'.

The boy, from Greenpark, was treated and discharged last night.


Elephant fish and note the huge dorsal spike.
Carl Hyland - copyright

For jellyfish stings, the recommended treatment now is to wash the affected stung part with warm water and seek medical attention. The vinegar method is not now recommended as it can cause more stinging cells to fire, making the area of the stings worse. Personally, I have used the vinegar on a few children and it is fantastic, so I’ll leave it up to you as to what you may choose to do. Further information on marine bites and stings is available from your local poisons information centre, usually located at your states major hospital.

So there’s the basics, in future writings I shall touch more on the treatments of other biting and stinging fish, so we all can be up to date, when on or near the water.

Take care.