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Stingray tours continue despite Irwin death

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(CNN) -- A tour operator says he plans to make no changes to daily trips to Stingray City, about 8 kilometers (5 miles) off Grand Cayman Island, despite the death of naturalist Steve Irwin when a stingray plunged a barb into his chest off Australia.

"I think the phenomenon is totally different to what you encounter in the wild," said Mark Button, an operator for Moby Dick Tours, which for more than 20 years has been taking tourists to a location where 50 stingrays await handouts of squid from their mammalian visitors.

"The fish have been hand-fed for more than two decades," he said. "Therefore, they're in a different state of affairs when it comes to dealing with humans."

None of the company's tour participants -- whose numbers average 600 per day -- has ever suffered "any serious injuries," he said. "They have the odd sting now and again."

The stingray uses its barb to protect itself from natural predators, which include sharks. (Watch how stingwrays strike -- 2:35 )

But humans represent no threat to the stingrays, Button said. "They come in and play with us because we're offering them free food. ... They consider people to be another set of legs with a possible squid at the end, and they're very happy to see us."

Still, he warns tourists not to make sudden movements, and to keep their hands away from the stingrays' tails, where the serrated barb -- "like a sharp nail" -- is housed.

Stingray City's origins date back about a quarter of a century, when the fish began to congregate around a sandbar on a barrier reef where fishermen cleaned their catch.

"Some brave divemaster" decided to feed them, Button said. Since then, new generations of stingrays have joined the group.

Though competitors have tried to set up similar sites off Belize and the Bahamas, none has been successful, he said.

Pat Kenney, diver manager for Red Sail Sports -- another conveyor of tourists to Stingray City -- said he was shocked when he heard the news about Irwin.

"I just couldn't believe it," the dive manager, who opened his business in 1985, told CNN. "This is the first known death I've ever heard of. This is one of the rarest occurrences that you can possibly believe."

He said the company warns Stingray City visitors to shuffle their feet so they don't step on the fish. "Other than that, there's no real warning necessary. They're a very docile creature."

The company is continuing to run trips, he said. "It hasn't done anything to our business, and I don't think it will and I think if it did, Steve would be deeply upset that it did."


Tourists are advised to avoid sudden movements and keep their hands away from stingrays' tails.

    RELATED

      STINGRAY FACTS

    • Marine fish related to the shark
    • Wingspan in different species ranges from 10 inches to 7 feet
    • Barb can be up to 12 inches
    • Lie buried in sand, and normally very shy and non-aggressive
    • Eat worms, mollusks and other invertebrates
    • Possess flexible tails armed, in most species, with saw-edged, venomous spines
    • Uses barb in self-defense when startled, threatened or cornered; venom causes excruciating pain, and serrated barb damages tissue when pulled out; large rays can exert enough force to drive their tail spines into a wooden boat
    • Most stings occur in shallow, coastal waters when swimmers step on a stingray
    • Fatal stings extremely rare, with only 17 recorded stingray deaths in Australia since 1969

      If stingrays are near:
    • Shuffle feet in sand to scare stingrays away
    • If stung, soak affected area in extremely hot water to destroy venom
    • Seek medical attention immediately

      Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica, Georgia Aquarium, infoplease.com, Surf Life Saving Queensland
    • I-REPORT

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