GULFPORT, Miss. (WLOX) - At most aquariums, the only interaction people have with stingrays is in a touch pool, but a group of teenagers got up close and personal with them in the big pool at Ocean Adventures Marine Park Friday.
“Some summer campers are a little hesitant about the stingrays because they are known for their stingray barbs," said Jessica Martin, an educator at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies.
The school of cownose rays at Ocean Adventures have their barbs clipped. Just like human finger nails, the barbs will always grow back. The teen summer camp group spent time learning about the conservation status of the species.
Stingrays have gotten a negative reputation about being an aggressive species. Their venomous barbs are stuff of nightmares for humans in the water, but after a few lessons the campers learned that these stingrays, or “sea pancakes” as they are affectionately known on the internet, are a passive species.
“It was scary at first but then it turned out to be really cool and fun,” said Belle Dickinson.
Dickinson was one of those hesitant campers. She wasn’t too sure about how her experience swimming with the rays would turn out.
“I was sacred they were going to bite me or something, or I was going to step on one,” Dickinson said.
Changing a perception of something you don’t understand or have been miseducated about takes time, but the IMMS staff believes it’s worth it. Some people don’t know that just like dolphins, rays can get accidentally caught up in fishing nets.
“They are endangered. They are a result of bycatch, and we really want to bring awareness to everyone that these guys are out there,” Martin said.
Dickinson said after getting over her initial fear and touching one, she realized the animals weren’t as bad as she once thought.
“(It felt) a little bit slimy, and it feels like they have sand on their back, but it’s a cool feeling,” she said.
Out in the wild, cownose rays swim near the surface of the water and are shy, so according to marine scientists, swimmers and waders have a minimal risk of stepping on their venomous spines.