"It was a freak accident," said Lighthouse Point acting fire Chief David Donzella. "It's very odd that the thing jumped out of the water and stung him. We still can't believe it."
Fatal stingray attacks like the one that killed Irwin last month at the Great Barrier Reef are rare, marine experts say. Rays reflexively deploy a sharp spine in their tails when frightened, but the venom coating the barb usually causes just a painful sting for humans.
James Bertakis of Lighthouse Point was on the water with his granddaughter and a friend Wednesday when a stingray flopped onto the boat and stung Bertakis. The women steered the boat to shore and called 911.
Doctors were able to remove the barb during surgeries Wednesday and Thursday by eventually pulling it through his heart and closing the wound, said Dr. Eugene Costantini at Broward General Medical Center.
"He has a reasonable chance of recovering," heart surgeon Dr. Ted Carson told CBS station WFOR-TV. "It's not guaranteed. It's a very serious, freaky kind of injury. I've never seen anything like this and I don't think many people have."
He said Bertakis' case was different from Irwin's because the barb stayed in Bertakis' heart and was not pulled out. Videotape of Irwin's last moments shows him pulling the barb from his chest.
Bertakis was apparently trying to remove the three-foot-wide spotted eagle ray from the boat when he was stung, police Cmdr. Mike Oh said.
Ellen Pikitch, a professor of marine biology and fisheries at the University of Miami, who has been studying stingrays for decades, said they are generally docile.
"Something like this is really, really extraordinarily rare," she said. "Even when they are under duress, they don't usually attack."