Lucky break helps teen survive surprise ray strike off Hilton Head

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — The expression "timing is everything" couldn't be more true for Levi Dixon, a Bluffton 18-year-old who had an unusual -- and nearly fatal -- encounter with a ray.

Dixon, who works for Sea Monkeys Watersports on Hilton Head Island, was riding a Jet Ski in Skull Creek when a large ray leaped out of the water, hitting him in the face and knocking him unconscious.

Thomas McDaniel of Okatie and his girlfriend, Joanna Whipple of Bluffton, were in a boat nearby and saw the accident happen.

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Just before the accident, McDaniel said a koozie flew out of the back of their boat, so they turned around to pick it up. That put them in just the right place to help Dixon, who might have drowned otherwise.

McDaniel said the ray was big. He estimated it was about 4 feet wide and at least 30 pounds.

McDaniel jumped into the water and held Dixon upright while Whipple called 911. When another boater came by, they were able to get Dixon onboard and delivered him to EMTs waiting at a nearby dock.

"If that koozie wouldn't have flown out," McDaniel said. "... It's a miracle he's alive."

Dixon said he doesn't have any memory of the accident.

"I just remember going out on one of the skis to help with some customers that were falling behind," he said. " ... and that was the last thing I remember, and I woke up in Hilton Head Hospital."

Dixon's encounter with the ray left him with two broken ribs, bruised lungs and swelling of his brain. He was transferred to Memorial Health University Medical Center in Savannah and was discharged two days later.

David Lucas, spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, confirmed that the agency responded to the scene of the accident.

Lucas said one of the responding officers, 1st Sgt. Adam Henderson, told him he had not seen an accident like this one in 13 years of water patrols.

However, Henderson told him there are more rays in nearshore waters off Hilton Head during the spring and summer, and they frequently jump out of the water.

"I guess it's just very long odds that one would jump at the exact right time to impact a boater," Lucas said.

Dixon, who is part of a competitive tumbling and cheerleading squad, said he hopes his recovery won't take more than a few weeks. Doctors told him he should be able to ease back into his normal activities once he's pain-free.

The fact that he survived a nearly fatal experience isn't lost on him.

"It was definitely a miracle," he said.