Kyle Dawson was enjoying a day of fishing with his girlfriend's uncle last Sunday when the uneventful trip became one he would never forget. Dawson was chasing schools of redfish around Joe Bay when he decided to travel across Tampa Bay to fish at Ft. Desoto.
"We were running parallel to the Sunshine Skyway and we were close to the middle of the bridge," Dawson described, "when about 25 feet in front of the boat, I saw an eagle ray jump. I quickly thought to myself 'I hope there isn't another one', and no sooner than I thought that, a second jumped right about 8 feet into the air in front of the boat."
Going 40-miles per hour in his Pathfinder, Dawson's attempt to slow down by pulling back the throttle was too late. As the spotted eagle ray hit the apex of its jump, there was no avoiding a collision. Dawson hid behind the wheel as the ray slammed into the left side of the center console before it was hurled into the leaning post and nearly split in half.
The aftermath resembled a horror movie as blood covered the back of the boat. "The boat took it pretty well, but the console had damage. There was blood and feces everywhere. It's intestines were ripped open," Dawson said. "It weighed about 80 pounds and getting a grip on it to get it out of the boat was difficult."
Never miss a local story.
Dawson waved down a neighboring boat that had a gaff to aid in getting the ray overboard, where it barely swam away.
"We sat there and took it all in, realizing how lucky we were, and how it could have been worse."
Worse indeed. Incidents between rays and boaters, although rare, have been fatal in the past. An accident in 2008 killed a woman in the Florida Keys after a 75-pound spotted eagle ray hit her in the head in a boat going 25 MPH. In 2006, "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin was killed while swimming with a spotted eagle ray when its barb pierced his heart.
A week before Dawson's incident, a boater in Southwest Florida was hit by a smaller spotted eagle ray that sent him to the hospital with broken ribs after breaking the grab rail off of his console.
"It was something I thought could happen but never really imagined it would. I posted it on Facebook and three people sent me messages with their stories about how the same thing happened to them."
The eagle ray casualty left a mess Dawson had to deal with when the day was done.
"I didn't have a brush on the boat so all the blood was dry when I got home. I spent two hours cleaning everything off and it still needs a detailing."