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You bob gently on a crystalline aqua swell; the silken embrace of the Caribbean sea cooling your over-heated body. Briefly, you hang suspended between two vastly different worlds; above, a hot sun reflects intense bursts of glittering diamonds, the harsh, mechanical sounds of a man-made world assault your ears. Below, cool, dark depths are softly illuminated by sun-spangled prisms, the soft, muted, song of the sea whispers invitingly. Pressing your snorkel mask to your face, you slowly sink beneath the surface and enter a universe so amazing, so exhilarating and so unique that you feel you may never want to surface again. An underwater ballet is being performed, the massive, silver-shadowed wings of the performers enticing you to join them as they glide in effortless abandon, swooping close enough to leave their surprisingly silken caress upon your skin. The rays of Stingray City surround you, capture your mind with their beauty and personality, and hold a place in your heart forever.
Sadly, many people have a fear of Stingrays, as did I, before this experience, and it was only after I did some research that I made my decision to swim with the stingrays at Stingray City, Grand Cayman. Though there are seven different types of rays, most familiar to many of us are the slate-coloured, triangular-shaped "Southern Stingrays" (common at Stingray City). They can grow to a wingspan of six feet, with the females being the larger of the sexes. Two other types of rays are also familiar to most of us, though chances are we've never seen one up close. The impressive "Manta Rays", probably best known for their sometimes enormous size, with wing-spans of up to twenty feet, and "Eagle Rays", which I have seen only in aquariums, are easily identifiable by their exotic, spotted backs and defined "snouts".
Though it is true that stingrays can cause injuries, these are not caused by rays "attacking"; they are simply accidental or provoked. Rays are peace-loving, gentle creatures who snuffle along the sandy ocean bottoms, feeding on mollusks, crustaceans, and small fish which they suck up, much like a vacuum cleaner, and crush and grind with their strong, cartilage dental plates. When they feel threatened, they burrow into the sand and try to hide. The Stingray has a razor-sharp barb at the base of his long, whip-like tail, right where it joins his triangular body. If someone steps on him as he burrows, his defense is simply to whip his tail up as he tries to escape, most often resulting in cuts to the foot or leg.
It seemed obvious that being cautious when walking about in shallow, sandy Caribbean waters, and respecting their presence, was a good way to prevent injury by a Stingray, or indeed other stinging sea creatures such as jelly-fish or sea urchins. We booked our trip to Stingray City with a little trepidation, but much enthusiasm.
Grand Cayman, situated about 480 miles south of Miami, Florida, is best known as one of the premiere international off-shore banking centers of the world. Its real treasures, however, soar on gossamer wings beneath the calm, translucent waters of the northwest corner of Grand Cayman's North Sound. The stingrays were originally attracted to this area many years ago, after returning fishing boats regularly stopped at this reef-sheltered site to clean and filet their catch of the day. The regular feedings soon led to a huge colony of Stingrays habitually flocking to the site and becoming accustomed to the daily treats and the presence of friendly humans, resulting in a tourist attraction not to be over-looked.
There are more sunny days in Grand Cayman than anywhere else in the Western Caribbean, and the day of our tour was no exception. Stingray City Tours departed from a dockside location on a narrow channel, and as we waited in a line to board the ferry-style boat, I really wanted to just jump into the inviting aqua depths and swim alongside the boat instead of riding on the hot deck. That was not an option, however, and soon we boarded the clean vessel, amply stocked with life-vests, snorkel equipment, and buckets of what I later found out was squid, for the twenty-five minute journey out to North Sound. We chugged slowly through the channel which was lined with luxuriously landscaped houses and townhouses. Once out on open sea, the crew cranked the engines higher, and we motored towards a distant sand bar where, we were told, the sting rays congregated.
I could see the sand bar in the distance, a stretch of shallow translucence reflecting multiple, magnificent hues of sea-green, turquoise, and azure. As we neared, the engines were switched off, and we floated in a perfect sea of silence. Then, the quiet was punctuated by a cry: "Here they come!"
I will never forget the sight of the huge, dark creatures as they approached from every direction, at first just indistinct black shapes resembling small Stealth fighter jets. In closer proximity they seemed almost prehistoric; large, flapping, underwater birds of another time and place. For a moment I felt a tingle of doubt, but I pushed it away. I wanted, needed to experience this.
A few last instructions from the Captain and we would be allowed in. No swim-fins or diving gloves allowed in the water as they could injure the stingray's fragile membrane. Men were strictly instructed not to touch their privates after handling the squid, as the stingrays would "smell" the squid and assume it was in their bathing trunks, which may result in the men speaking in a falsetto voice for a while. We were also told that the stingrays could inflict "hickies" if they became excited when trying to locate the squid, and accidentally "sucked" onto you. If we wanted to feed the stingrays, we could get some squid from buckets which were hung on hooks from the back of the boat. Stingrays should be fed with palms flat, fingers turned sideways, sort of like feeding a horse. If we should get nervous or overwhelmed, the captain said, we should keep our arms and hands down at our sides and just stay calm. Not realizing that was much easier said than done, I tucked the information into a little corner of my mind, grabbed my snorkel mask, and walked the plank.
I stepped off the platform into a surge of waves that was stronger than I had anticipated. I staggered awkwardly in the chest-deep water, the took some deep breaths, trying to acclimate myself to the situation. I could see the dark shapes close to the surface, coming ever closer. My deep breathing calmed me down a little, and then, I felt it. A velvety soft flutter, a silken kiss of wings across my thighs. I couldn't help it. I screamed. Just a little. A few heads turned my way, annoyed at the silly female in their midst. Another dark shape approached, flapping closer, and I made a panicked attempt to get out of it's path, a flurry of flailing limbs lurching on the sandy bottom. I was beginning to feel justified in my reaction as a few other excited screeches sounded when a sudden wave jerked me off my feet. It pushed me first in one direction, then the other; another rudely caught me cross-ways and slapped the side of my face so that all I could see were salty, stinging ocean-tears and dark shapes hovering.
I gave up trying to remain vertical and pulled my snorkel mask over my face, diving deeply below the mischievous waves. Finally, I had some semblance of control, and I exhaled bubbles of relief, just as I came eyeball to eyeball with a large Southern Stingray. We gazed at each other in that split second, and though his small eyes blended into the velvety darkness of his upper body, I had the distinct impression that they were kind eyes, like the eyes of an elephant, and I wanted to cry. He turned in a graceful arc, showing me his smooth, white underbelly and a small suction-type mouth, flapped once effortlessly, and was gone.
I surfaced to take an emotional gulp and dove once more, addicted now, and was suddenly surrounded by a flurry of swooping, gliding, dappled-gray discs who partook in a feeding frenzy of floating squid. I surfaced once more, needing to laugh with delight and excitement, unable to get enough of this experience, becoming as silly as a six year old on a sugar-high, screeching loudly with abandon as gentle rays flapped up against me, almost enfolding me in their glistening wings. I wanted more, more, more of this experience, and I was now brave enough to feed them myself.
I lurched awkwardly towards the bucket of squid which dangled from the back of the rocking boat. Steadying myself, I reached into the bucket to grab a handful when a large and cunning wave surged, no doubt intending to send me head first into the side of the boat. With a squawk I toppled, grasping the bucket as I went down, spilling at least half of it onto me and into the already teeming waters. I knew immediately what was going to happen next, and started emitting little squeaking screams as suddenly I was swarmed by soft, silky, flapping wings, it seemed like hundreds of them, everywhere, surrounding me.
Squid was all over me now, and suddenly a ray launched himself almost out of the water in excitement, first at my chest, then at my thighs; the raspy, bone-like cartilage of his mouth grazing against me, searching, sucking for squid, squid, squid!!! The bizarreness of the experience struck me suddenly and I had to laugh even as I tried not to lash out in panic; I did not want to hurt any of them because of my stupidity, and after all, the worst I would be faced with were a few large, red hickies.
I forced myself to float, slowly paddling away, far away, from the squid-fest, managing to salvage one pathetic, floating squid piece. I waited until I reached a calm area, before I opened my palm and waved the squid around. Mere seconds later a small stingray, no doubt a male, approached, and forcing myself not to flinch or scream, I held my palm out flat and sideways. The stingray hovered over my open palm for a moment, then I felt the bony platelets of his mouth suck up against my hand, and then he was gone. My cheeks ached from smiling. I had successfully fed a stingray.
Then I noticed a staff diver who was holding a very large ray who was lying quiescent in his arms on the surface of the water. He knew this particular stingray from her markings, he said, and she was very tame and often swam up to visit him and have a little rub on the back. He allowed me to carefully touch her back, showing me how delicate her skin was, especially where it joined at the edges of her "wings", and noted with concern that some tourists were often too rough with the rays, and sometimes tried to pick at or peel the top skin out of curiosity, resulting in injury and infections to the rays.
I stroked her gently, amazed at the texture of the upper body; it was rough and pebbly, almost like sand-paper, in contrast to the smooth, glistening underbelly where her mouth was located. He showed me the section of barbed tail which could cause so much damage, and seeing the small, razor-sharp barbs I fully understood, and respected, the potential for injury. Then he released her and she hesitated one moment, almost as though she'd not had quite enough of our company, and then, with the casual dip of a wing-tip, she was gone.
It seemed that her departure was a signal, for as quickly as these enchanting creatures had soared in on silent wings of steel, they disappeared. Suddenly still and somber aqua waters reflected the sorrow of my heart as they faded from view, their darkness smudging a sapphire horizon.
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Highlights of Port Antonio, Jamaica
Thanks to Deborah for this trip report ...