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Boater’s death by eagle ray is puzzling

Impact was so severe that demise was instantaneous for Michigan woman cruising in the Florida Keys

Impact was so severe that demise was instantaneous for Michigan woman cruising in the Florida Keys

Marine scientists are calling the recent death of a woman boater struck by a flying spotted eagle ray in the Florida Keys a freak accident.

“It’s nearly impossible that the ray jumped because the boat was coming,” says Brent Winner, associate research scientist with the St. Petersburg Fish and Wildlife Institute. “I’ve approached hundreds of eagle rays by boat, and they either sound or dart left or right. It adds to the mystery. It was just the worst of timing.”

As the 22-footer cruised along at 25 mph, a 75-pound ray leapt out of the water and struck Judy Kay Zagorski, 57, of Pigeon, Mich., in the head, killing her instantly, said Jorge Pino, an officer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). The woman, who was vacationing with her family in Marathon, was not stung by the ray.

“The initial impact between the victim and the ray was so severe that it was an instant death,” Pino says. The ray knocked her off the center console’s forward seat to the starboard side of the boat where she hit her head on the gunwale, he said. The MonroeCounty medical examiner concluded that she suffered multiple skull fractures and brain damage, Pino said.

Zagorski and three family members headed out March 20 on a fishing trip in a rented 1987 Boston Whaler when the accident happened, FWC spokesperson Gabriella Ferraro says. The boat was in shallow water near Vaca Cut near green marker No. 5 when the ray hit, she says. The No. 5 nav aid marks a curve in the 6-foot-deep water of an oceanside channel exiting Vaca Cut. It’s within 200 yards of the seawall of the KeyColonyBeach area.

Zagorski was in the seat immediately forward of the console, sitting on the starboard side of the two-person seat, while her sister, Joyce Ann Miller, was seated on the port side, according to Ferraro. Zagorski’s 88-year-old father, Virgil Bouck, was at the helm. Zagorski’s mother, Verneta Bouck, was also aboard.

The family frequently visited the Keys on vacation. This year, they had rented a house in Marathon, says Ferraro.

Parasites and predators

Spotted eagle rays can grow up to 17 feet long (including the tail) with a wingspan of 10 feet. They can weigh up to 500 pounds and live more than 20 years. These rays, which are prevalent in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the southern Atlantic Ocean, jump out of the water to remove parasites or flee from predators, says Winner.

They can jump from water as shallow as 2 or 3 feet, many times completely coming out of the water, added Carl Luer, senior scientist at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla. “They come down with a tremendous splash,” he says. “It’s quite spectacular.”

Luer agrees with Winner about the freakish nature of this accident. “It is their natural behavior to leap out of the water, but not to leap when a boat approaches,” says Luer. “They want to avoid the boat.”

Like sharks, spotted eagle rays are able to acutely sense vibration in the water, which allows them to know when a moving object such as a Boston Whaler is coming, added Winner. “If this ray was reacting [to the boat] it would have acted long before the boat arrived,” says Winner.

Boaters may see them jump, but they can also spot the eagle rays as they swim along the surface. “Their pectoral fins come out of the water, and they almost look like two shark dorsal fins side-by-side,” says Winner, “except that a shark’s dorsal fins will go straight down when it submerges and a ray’s will go off to the side.”

For the most part, rays keep their distance from boaters, but encounters with humans have happened. A South Florida man was critically injured two years ago after a ray flopped into his boat and stung him. A foot-long barb had to be extracted from his heart. He survived. Steve Irwin, the “Crocodile Hunter,” did not. He was killed after a bull ray pierced his heart with a barb off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

The barbs of eagle rays are at the base of their tails. There can be four or five barbs lodged in the tail at one time, says Winner. Treatment after a sting should begin with cleaning the wound with an antiseptic. Applying heat is important. “Hot soapy water — about 110 to 115 degrees — breaks down the venom and diminishes the effect,” says Winner.

The victim should have a doctor remove the barb. If moved around, the spine’s serrated teeth may cause trauma to local tissue, increasing the amount of venom in the tissue that’s being released, says Winner.

“Antibiotics may be necessary,” he says. “You need to take care of the wound to avoid secondary infections.”