Sea urchin stings in Sri Lanka

What to know, how to be careful, and aftercare

By Jithendri Gomes

These little creatures are scientifically known as Echinoidea, and are found throughout the tropical Indo-Pacific, with a patchy distribution. “At present, the Sri Lankan coastal belt is going through rapid transformations due to settlements, tourism, port construction (IUCN 2009) and coastal pollution. Since the diversity of many invertebrates has not been recorded, any changes that could happen due to above mentioned disturbances also go unnoticed,” as reported in the study by M. Arachchige, Gayashan & Jayakody, Sevvandi (2012).

Dr. Terney Pradeep Kumara

We spoke to Dr. Terney Pradeep Kumara, who is the Director General of the Marine Environmental Protection Authority and also a senior lecturer at the Department of Oceanography and Marine Geology at the University of Ruhuna, to find out more details about their abundance in our coastlines.

Q. There are two kinds – poisonous and non-poisonous. How can a layman identify between them?
There are many types. One out of the poisonous type is called a flower urchin because it actually looks like a flower. They have very short and thick spines. The long-spine sea urchins are not poisonous but they penetrate deeper into your skin. Though they only release only mild toxins, the pain is unbearable. Whether they are poisonous or non-poisonous can be identified from the thickness and length of their spines. The shorter the spine, the more poisonous they are.

Long-spined urchins are found on rocks, whereas flower urchins are found at the bottom of the sea. There are also two more kinds; the pencil urchins found on coral reefs and crevices and sand dollar urchins found in sand.

Q. Any common places sea urchins can be found in Sri Lanka?

Sea urchins are found in rocky beaches; Trincomalee, Tangalle, Hikkaduwa, and Galle are some of the places with more sightings. If you ever see a black patch on a rock and creatures that are about three to four cm in diameter, avoid approaching that area.

Q. Why are they prevalent so close to shore and in dense groupings?

They are found so close to the shore because of the availability of food. They grace on algae that grows on hard surfaces and shallow water. When there is more algae on the shores, they spread faster.

The dense groupings are a result of climate change. When their body temperature increases due to the rising temperature levels, they reproduce in the earlier stages of their lives. When the climate is hot they reproduce more and faster as well. Increases in these groupings are also a result of a lack of their predators who feed on them; puffer fish and triggerfish, who are removed from the water for consumption and ornamental presentations. These fish are also scarce in our waters because of the high-strength fishing trends used in recent times.

Q. How do you handle a sea urchin sting, naturally and surgically?

First aid for a sting is lukewarm natural water. Pour it over the area you were stung. This stops the poison from spreading further as the temperature deforms the non-toxic compound. After this, you can keep ice to reduce the pain. You can also put vinegar or acid over the wound as it dissolves the spines. These spines comprise of protein, so acid helps dissolve it, especially the micro hooks pointed backwards.

It is important to have a surgeon remove the spines entirely, as they break easily. Make sure you don’t put any pressure on the spines as they are made out of calcium carbonate and can break easily and penetrate into your skin further if you try to remove them yourself. There aren’t any trained doctors to handle this procedure, but most of our doctors, surgeons especially, can manage to do it.

There are also ayurvedic practices followed to remove the spines. Vara saps, used often in local medicinal practices, also help reduce the pain and dissolve the protein and the micro hooks.

Q. What is their importance to the eco-system and what is the role they play?
As with any animal, they also help to balance our eco-system. Their importance lies with them controlling algae growth and keeping rocks and reefs clean. However, dense groupings also have many adverse effects. They burrow holes and dig into the reef and continue to stay put in the pits. This can lead to reefs collapsing. They also have a negative impact on corals and seaweed as they expose them by burrowing.

Q. What are some of the precautions we can take, and what advice do you give tourists and locals who visit beaches often?

Sea urchin stings are becoming very common in Sri Lanka, therefore if you visit a beach with rocks, a reef or corals it is always better to confirm with a local fisherman and find out if there any sea urchins. If there are, it is always best to stay away because the currents are unpredictable and may drag you towards them.

Always try to use protective gear like rubber soles when snorkeling or diving. Remember, they release the spine only if you touch them. The momentum under water is far greater than above water, so even the smallest touch will leave you with a spine buried seven inches deep.
If they are in the vicinity, stay away! The pain is truly unbearable. If you are ever stung by one, please follow procedures and take proper care. If the spine is not taken out entirely, it can form lumps which are cancerous in the long term.

We also spoke to two youths who have had first-hand experience with sea urchins. One was an adventurous sort, Nadun Pramod, and the other, a certified diver Yasun Chanuka.

“I was snorkeling at Jungle Beach in Galle with a group of friends. It is a place I visit often so I am very comfortable in the water there. During one of these trips, I accidently stepped on a black sea urchin. The spikes actually pierced my fin and went through my foot. I was immediately rushed to the Galle Karapitiya Hospital where they surgically removed them.”
Nadun Pramod

“Being a certified diver, I go on snorkeling and diving trips often. This incident occurred on a snorkeling trip to Hikkaduwa. When I tried to climb onto the reef, I stepped on one and it pierced through my fin. Our coach actually advised me to urinate onto the wound first. I was then taken to a nursing/medical home in the area where they removed the spikes and gave me painkillers for a week. I have the scars all these years later.”
Yasun Chanuka

Most hotels and beaches warn you of rough seas. Maybe they can also begin to warn you of these little creatures that can cause you a lot of pain. As they are most found on the reefs and rocks, people may begin to keep away from beaches with them.