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Stingray kills Singapore aquarium diver as barbed spine pierces his chest

Visitors walk through a glass tunnel at Underwater World in December 2013. (Rahman Roslan/AFP/Getty Images)
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Tragedy struck with a barbed tail at Singapore’s Underwater World aquarium. On Tuesday, a stingray killed a diver, 62-year-old Philip Chan, as the man was working in the animal’s enclosure.

Chan was a veteran diver, with some 5,000 dives under his belt. His contract with Underwater World Singapore was due to expire at the end of October, according to the Straits Times.

Colleagues described Chan as kind, both toward his fellow humans and the animals with which he worked. He treated the animals as his “babies” and dressed up as Santa Claus during dives around the holidays. He was a “forgiving mentor,” diving instructor Koh Leong San told the Times.

In late June, Underwater World Singapore closed for business after 25 years. The AFP reported the aquarium was unable to compete with newer attractions that shared its resort island. A few species, but not all of the animals, were relocated in June when the Underwater World sent its pink dolphins and sea otters to Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in China.

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Chan, one of the few employees left at the aquarium, had been preparing animals in the stingray exhibit for such a move when one of the rays lashed him in the chest with its barb. The spine pierced his chest, and he died at Singapore General Hospital.

“This was a tragic accident,” Haw Par Corp., the aquarium’s parent company, said in a statement. The aquarium has paused its relocation program and is under investigation.

Recorded stingray deaths are extraordinarily uncommon. Although their tails are equipped with serrated barbs containing a noxious protein, the animals tend to be docile around humans. A study reviewing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for fatal animal attacks found that, from 1991 to 2001, there were only two deaths from venomous sea creatures, which would include stingrays.

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Nonfatal stings are more typical, with about 1,500 reported injuries a year in the United States. Stingrays usually lash out only when a beachgoer accidentally steps on a ray camouflaged beneath the sand, for instance, or in other acts of self-defense.

Chan’s death echoed the most famous stingray attack, the fatal encounter between Australian wildlife celebrity Steve Irwin and a large bull ray in 2006. The fish stung Irwin in the chest, piercing Irwin’s heart. Irwin’s cameraman, who witnessed the attack, later said, “It [was] a jagged barb and it went through his chest like hot butter.”

It is likely the wound, rather than the venom, that killed Irwin. A month after Irwin’s death, a Florida man was also struck in the heart by a stingray but survived, even though the barb was not immediately removed from his chest.

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Irwin’s death marked only the third fatal stingray strike in Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald reported at the time. It is unknown what type of stingray was involved in Chan’s death. Police told the BBC that Chan was the first person reported to be killed by a stingray in Singapore.

Correction: A previous version of this post indicated Steve Irwin died after removing the barb from his chest. His cameraman later said that account was incorrect.