The Hausch family will have one heck of a fish story to tell when they return home to Illinois. And they've got the photos to prove it.
Jenny Hausch of Crystal Lake narrowly escaped injury when a spotted eagle ray leapt from the water and slammed into her chest near Islamorada in a heart-pumping close encounter with Florida Keys wildlife Friday afternoon.
Hausch, her husband, David, and their three children -- Jake, 11; Ben, 10; and Delaney, 6 -- were watching multiple rays in Whale Harbor Channel with Capt. Kelly Klein of Two Chicks Charters about 1 p.m. when the 5-foot-long ray, weighing from 150 to 200 pounds, soared into the boat and knocked her down, Klein said.
"The last thing I remember is taking pictures, and then this thing is on top of me and I'm trying to push it off," Hausch said.
The 39-year-old was not injured.
The ruckus caught the attention of two Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) officers who happened to be nearby.
"I'm yelling for everyone to get back and the FWC had just cruised by, so they heard all the yelling and came back," Klein said. "She's trying to crawl from underneath this thing that's flapping its body like crazy. She gets it off and she's covered in ray slime, but didn't get a scratch on her."
All five members of the Hausch family were in the bow at the time. Jenny Hausch said she figures the ray must have jumped clear over her daughter, Delaney, who was in front of her at the time.
"Right when I saw it jump, I didn't have any time to react," she said. "All the locals have been telling me how lucky I am. It was definitely the scariest, craziest thing to ever happen to me."
The 26-foot catamaran was idling and not under way when the incident occurred, which reduced the chances of injury, said responding FWC Officer Aja Vickers.
Vickers and Officer Brett Swensson worked for about 10 minutes to get the ray back into the water. It did not appear to suffer serious injury, Vickers said.
"Luckily, we just happened to be right there and had just driven by and waved to them," Vickers said. "The woman was more shook up than anything. Given the size of the ray, she's really lucky she wasn't hurt."
Vickers and Swensson attempted to remove the ray immediately upon boarding Klein's boat, but it was thrashing so violently they let it "wear itself out" for a few minutes before covering its tail barbs with a towel, using a boat line to lift it and pushing it back into the water, Vickers said.
"The kids were laughing and having a good time by the end of it," he said. "We gave them one of the ray's barbs that broke off as a souvenir. They were very gracious for our help. The whole thing was just amazing to me, especially that she wasn't hurt."
In 2008, a Michigan woman was killed when a much smaller eagle ray -- about 75 pounds -- struck her in the head on a boat near Marathon, Vickers recalled. That boat was traveling about 25 mph.
"Had it struck [Hausch] in the head, we could have had a situation like the one in Marathon," he said.
Hausch, whose family usually vacations in Islamorada every year, said this incident didn't put a damper on their visit. Quite the opposite, she said.
"We stayed out there and went fishing and my husband went snorkeling," she said, laughing. "The kids were pretty shaken at first, but we didn't want them to be too scared of the water. A little fear of the ocean is good, but we've been coming down for 10 years and we didn't want this to affect their enjoyment of the water."
Spotted eagle rays are a state-protected species known to leap out of the water. Scientists believe they jump for two reasons, said Mote Marine Laboratory's Center for Shark Research Director Bob Hueter of Sarasota.
"We think they do this to rid themselves of unwanted riders, such as remoras, and the other is to avoid predators such as sharks," Hueter said. "The spotted eagle ray has extremely thin skin that is more delicate compared to other rays and sharks. We think they like to keep their skin clean, as that may be important when swimming. This behavior has nothing to do with attacking people."
Hueter is part of a team researching the migratory path of eagle rays. The project has lead researchers from Sarasota to the Keys to Mexico, he said.
"They appear to be very intelligent, as their brains are quite large for their body size and they are social animals," he said.
The rays can grow to 500 pounds with a wingspan of 10 feet, he added.