March 20, 2008 / 5:47 PM / 12 years ago

Ray jumps, kills boater off Florida Keys

MIAMI (Reuters) - A ray leaped onto a boat off the Florida Keys on Thursday and knocked a woman to the deck, killing her, wildlife investigators said.

An eagle ray is seen on the deck of a boat in a handout photo. REUTERS/Monroe County Sheriff's Department/Handout

“It’s a bizarre accident,” said Jorge Pino, an officer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The woman and her family were aboard a boat in the Atlantic Ocean, off the city of Marathon in the Florida Keys, he said.

“A large ray jumped out of the water and collided with the victim,” Pino said.

The impact threw the woman backward and she hit her head on the vessel, he said. Investigators initially said one of the animal’s venomous barbs had stabbed her, but they later said there was no sign of a puncture.

An autopsy was pending.

“We believe she died as a result of the impact between herself and the spotted eagle ray,” said Gabriella Ferraro, a spokeswoman for the wildlife commission.

The ray weighed about 80 pounds (36 kg) and had a wingspan of 5 to 6 feet, Ferraro said. The boat was traveling at about 25 mph (40 kph) when the animal collided with the woman, killing both, she said.

Investigators identified the woman as Judy Kay Zagorski, 57, of Pigeon, Michigan.

Spotted eagle rays are common in warm or tropical waters and are often seen near coral reefs. The can grow to more than 8 feet across and have two to six short, venomous barbs near the base of their whip-like tails, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History’s Web site.

The rays often swim near the water’s surface and can leap out, especially when pursued, but are generally shy of humans.

“All rays leap out of the water from time to time but certainly to see one collide with a vessel is extremely unusual,” Pino said.

In 2006, a spotted eagle ray leaped onto another boat in Florida waters off the Fort Lauderdale area and pierced the heart of an 81-year-old man with its barb. He survived.

Steve Irwin, the host of the “Crocodile Hunter” television show, was killed by another type of ray while filming underwater on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in 2006. He died when a stingray’s barb pierced his heart.

Editing by Xavier Briand

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