Sting fears increase while wading
Last week, I learned that during the lowest tides a person can walk between here, Lizard Island and Palfrey Island, about a half-mile away. "If you do it," the biologist said, "walk only in the sand. Everything else is fragile."
I checked the tide tables and made a plan: snorkel to Palfrey on the falling tide, wait there for low water and then walk back. Never once did I consider stinging animals, even here in Australia. Incidents are so rare and get so overblown, they aren't worth my worry.
On my chosen day, I hiked with mask and snorkel to my launch point and plunged in. The chest-deep water was as clear as water gets, and in this gap between the islands, nutrient-rich currents run strong. As a result, the corals there were like fields abloom, bursting with so much life and color, I could barely take it all in.
Large feather stars in rich reds and bright greens welcomed the current with open arms. Clusters of cream-colored vase sponges waved like fat fingers from cracks and crevices.
Enormous cowry snails sat right out in the open.
Since the water level was low and falling, the fish in the area had less space, making their dense schools even denser.
Damselfish in all colors of the rainbow hovered near coral branches like confetti, and plucky sergeants charged me when I got too close to their eggs.
When I started out, I'd had enough water to swim above the coral heads, but as the level fell, I moved to a nearby sand patch. There I startled a blue-spotted stingray, which darted from its resting place, startling another.
While snorkeling, my body was now just a few feet above the sand, and Steve Irwin's tragic stingray accident came to mind. I thought it wise to move my vital organs away from the skittish rays and start walking.
I removed my fins, looked down at my bare feet and suddenly wondered if I should have brought shoes. Was it safe to wade a half-mile, barefoot, with rays everywhere, in a region hosting the world's most toxic cone snails and stonefish, all of which bury themselves in sand?
Now I was the one skittish. I headed back nervously, stepping in only the smoothest, whitest spots of sand. When the depth allowed, I snorkeled, splashing loudly to warn the rays.
I made it back sting free but wondered afterward how risky my trek had really been. Later, I went to the station's library and looked up stonefish fatalities in Australia. None. Deaths by cone snails: one, maybe, in 1936. As for rays, Australia has had three deaths from stings to the heart, one each in 1945, 1989 and 2007, and all were freak accidents.
Nonfatal stings from the above animals do occur here, and hurt like mad, but their frequency and lethality are greatly exaggerated. I knew that, but sometimes, in foreign waters, tired, alone and uncertain, fear trumps reason.
A manager of the busy research station agreed that sting risks are low. In her 20-some years there, she's seen only one serious sting by an unknown animal. The pain was severe but the person did fine.
"I didn't wear shoes," I told her of my Palfrey adventure. "Should I?" She smiled, shrugged and left the library, meaning, I took it, that it was up to me.
I'm planning another expedition to Palfrey Island when the tide permits. I'll bring shoes.