A vacationer from Michigan out for a family boat ride in the Florida Keys died instantly Thursday after a 75-pound spotted eagle stingray flew out of the water and struck her in the head.
Judy Kay Zagorski, 55, who operates a marina on Lake Huron, is believed to have been killed by blunt force trauma, according to Jorge Pino, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. She was pronounced dead on arrival at Fisherman’s Hospital in Marathon.
“Out of nowhere, a spotted eagle ray pops up in front of boat and collides with the victim,” said Pino. “There was nothing anybody could have done in that situation. They were just out having a good time. It’s a sad, sad situation.”
Zagorski’s 88-year-old father, Virgil Bouck, was driving the 25-foot boat about 25 mph through Vaca Cut toward the open Atlantic Ocean when the bizarre incident took place about 10 a.m., said Pino.
Pino said investigators believe Zagorski, standing in the bow of the boat, died instantly from the impact; so did the ray. The boat deck was splattered with blood, he said.
With both Zagorski and the dead ray on the deck of the boat, Pino said, Zagorski’s family called 911, as Bouck pulled up to a dock at a house along the waterway.
Also aboard the boat were Zagorski’s mother, Verneta, and her sister, Joyce Ann Miller.
The ray had d wingspan of 5 to 6 feet, according to Pino. The ray’s barb was not believed to be a factor, he said.
Zagorski was an experienced boater and outdoorswoman who owned Beadle Bay Marina & Campground on Sand Point, which juts out into Saginaw Bay on Lake Huron. Zagorski, who lived in Pigeon, Mich., operated the marina alone after the 2005 death of her husband, Stephen, according to Brian Bentley, a family friend.
Although rays are known to occasionally leap from the water, especially when being pursued by predators, the chances of a boater or swimmer being struck are remote.
But it has happened before.
In 2006, James Bertakis, then 81, was severely injured in a canal off the Intracoastal Waterway near Lighthouse Point when an eagle ray jumped out of the water and lodged its barb in his chest. Doctors pulled a 2 1/2 -inch barb from Bertakis’ heart, and he recovered.
That incident came just a month after “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin was killed when a stingray barb pierced his heart as he swam near Port Douglas, Australia.
Still, cautioned experts, rays are not normally a threat to humans.
“They do jump; and if a boat is going by, they can land in the boat, and if you’re hit directly, they can knock you over,” said Robert Cowen, chairman of the marine biology and fisheries program at the University of Miami. “But the important thing to understand is that they are not inherently dangerous animals. This was a freak situation.”