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Eagle ray gets the best of Keys boater

A spotted eagle ray leaps from water off Southwest Florida. Although not aggressive, the rays can harm boaters who find themselves in the animal’s airborne path.
A spotted eagle ray leaps from water off Southwest Florida. Although not aggressive, the rays can harm boaters who find themselves in the animal’s airborne path.

A spotted eagle ray jumped from Florida Keys waters and hit a Fort Myers woman who was operating a personal watercraft April 11.

Laudineia G. Neves, 33, suffered a “deep laceration” to her face that required surgery, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reports.

“She’s recovering at home and doing much better now,” Rui Leite, her husband, said Tuesday. “They say it was a one-in-a-million thing.”

FWC Investigator Racquel Daniels reported that Neves was cruising on an 11-foot Bombardier watercraft in Lignumvitae Channel near Lower Matecumbe Key “when a spotted eagle ray jumped from the water and struck the operator in the face” around 1:45 p.m.

Neves received initial treatment at Mariners Hospital in Tavernier, then was taken by ambulance to South Miami Hospital for surgery.

Such incidents are rare but in March 2008 a leaping eagle ray struck and killed Judy Kay Zagorski, 57, of Michigan, who was on a moving boat off the Middle Keys. The 75-pound ray knocked Zagorski to the deck, causing a fatal head wound, the Monroe County Medical Examiner’s Office reported.

“I would call these types of incidents an unfortunate accident,” said Kim Bassos-Hull, senior biologist with Mote Marine Laboratory.

“Spotted eagle rays tend to be very shy,” she said. “They’re not going to come and attack people.”

Eagle rays are well known for their ability to suddenly burst out of the water and soar several feet into the air before crashing back to the surface.

“They jump a lot, for a variety of reasons,” said Bassos-Hull, the lead author on a 2014 peer-reviewed study of eagle rays. “They can be escaping predation attempts by hammerhead sharks, or trying to shake off parasites or remoras.”

“If a swimmer or diver enters the water, an eagle ray tends tends to move away. They’re not curious,” she said. “Most divers have a tough time getting close.”

Spotted eagle rays, which can grow to seven feet across from one tip of its “batoid” wings to the other, are protected from harvest in Florida.

“They are lower in numbers than other more common rays like the southern stingray,” Bassos-Hull said. “They only have one to four pups a year and don’t mature quickly.”

Spotted eagle rays do have a stinger barb at the end of their tail but wield it only in a defensive reaction.

Mote Marine Lab seeks information on eagle ray sightings for an ongoing population study of their movements. File online reports at www.mote.org/eagleray.

Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206

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