I was in Florida on business (not going to trash Florida here, it’s trashy enough already) and had ample frequent flyer miles to take a side trip, the destination being determined by where Northwest Air was flying. Anywhere in the Caribbean sounded good. The tropical islands were close and I’d never been there before. You know how those pesky free flights work . . . and in this case they worked by flying me to Grand Cayman.
Any holiday on an island promises to be filled with many idle hours. It’s kinda the point of island travel. But I’m not a real ‘just lay on the beach’ kind of guy, even for just a few days. Soon after checking into my beachside hotel I was looking for things to do. There’s not a lot of choices on Grand Cayman. Out of the touri outings that seemed to be popular, the one stand out choice was an afternoon of swimming with stingrays.
I’m not a total novice when it comes to the ocean and sea life, and I knew just how painful a sting from even a small stingray can be. But I checked around with the experts on the island (the local bartender at the dive I decided to hang out at that night) and was assured that in this case they were quite tame and of no danger. Good enough for me. I signed up the next morning for that afternoon’s trip.
Swimsuited, goggle and six pack of beer in hand, I showed up that afternoon to meet my fellow excursion goers, a nice small group of six, three couples, two of whom were on their honeymoon and we were soon onboard for the half hour ride out to a sandbar in the middle of the ocean. This viewing / meeting spot is quite shallow, like three to eight feet, so you don’t even really have to swim. More like stand around. A thin veil of clouds filtered the sun but did nothing to help the heat; the turquoise waters seemed to reach to the horizon. A small boat, a small group, the silence of the afternoon at sea suggested finding a shady spot and letting the gentle rocking of the boat lull you to sleep. But shadows appeared floating gracefully just under the ocean’s surface. It was feeding time, and the rays had come calling.
This is an area in Grand Cayman’s shallow North Sound where fishing boats used to stop and clean their catch, throwing a lot of fish guts and trimmings overboard into the water. Both fish and rays discovered the free dining spot and began to congregate. Divers soon noticed and began diving the spot. And of course, they brought food for the rays. The smart rays realized that they could get an easy meal from the divers bearing gifts and Stingray City was born.
Quick instructions from the tour operator: don’t grab the rays’ tail or run your hand down their back because the barb is on the back of the tail. Then we were each given some squid to feed the stingrays before jumping over the side of the boat where the rays were waiting for us. They were a lot bigger than I had expected – some as big as half my body or even more, and quite wide. The women immediately began screaming: the rays swim right up and brush against your body. The rays were cool and so was watching the newlywed guys trying to act macho when they too were a bit apprehensive about having these huge creatures take them on.
There were soon literally hundreds of them swimming around, going under your feet, brushing up against your leg. The creatures are very friendly. And very hungry. They’d slurp the squid off the palm of your hand like a vacuum. Surprisingly, they were quite soft, kinda felt like velvet. Once the food was all gone, the rays kept looking for more and occasionally you’d have to fold our arms tightly against your body to keep them from nibbling at your fingers.
It was really terrific to see these creatures up close. Though I hear now that this has become such a popular excursion that you spend your time with more of your fellow touri than with the stingrays and that it is so crowded most never get close to a ray. Of course, since Aussie Steve Irwin got speared by a ray and died on camera, Stingray City probably doesn’t lure quite as many vacationers as it once did.