"STINGRAY CITY"

 

Southern Stingray (Dasyatis americana)

Photograph by Carlos Villoch

© 2001 by Image Quest 3-D
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Imagine yourself diving in crystal clear warm water, surrounded by dozens of stingrays that gracefully glide over your head and swim between your legs caressing your body, demanding a stroke and a handout of squid. Well, although this may sound like a nightmare for many people, mostly non-divers, it is also the best of dreams for a lot of divers. A dream waiting to come true in the Cayman Islands. Stingray City in Grand Cayman, the biggest of the Cayman Islands, has been rated as the best 4 meters dive in the world and every year attracts thousands of divers from all over the world that come to this Caribbean island to enjoy the kind welcome of the stingrays.

Stingray City is located in the shallow waters of the northwest corner of Grand Cayman's North Sound. It was originated in 1987, by some local divemasters. Looking for a secluded area protected from the north wind in order to spend the surface intervals between deep dives in the famous north wall, these divemasters decided to dive and feed some stingrays hanging around a sandy shallow area to entertain the customers. However, old local fishermen remember to have seen stingrays in the area since they were kids. After a day of fishing, they used to clean the catch of the day in these shallow calm waters behind the barrier reef and the stingrays came to feed on the scraps.

Since those first dives eleven years ago, the amount of stingrays coming to play with divers has been increasing and they have got tamer and bigger! Some of the first stingrays fed by divers in the early days are still around like Darth Vader, a particularly dark ray capable of making you fall in love with her. New generations of young stingrays have also grown up among divers, becoming especially friendly towards people.

Swimming with Southern Stingrays (Dasyatis americana)

Photograph by Carlos Villoch

© 2001 by Image Quest 3-D
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Stingrays are bottom dwellers that feed primarily on molluscs and crustaceans, for which they dig in the sand, and on the occasional small fish. Stingrays naturally like shallow, sandy bottoms such as that found at Cayman's North Sound because that's where they find their food.

The rays we find at Stingray City are Southern Atlantic Stingrays (Dasyatis americana) and they take their name from the barbed spine at the base of their long, whip-like tail. This poisonous sting is used only for defensive purposes, mainly against sharks, which are their natural predator. The wingspan of large individuals can reach two meters across, however males are noticeably smaller than females. Stingrays bear live young. The males have two distinctive long and narrow fins on both sides of the tail base.

Stingray City is not an artificial, man-made, aquarium setting with captive rays. This is the real thing, this is the real ocean, with real animals who are free to come and go as they choose, and they choose to be there because they hope that you might just come down there and feed them. Makes sense, when you think of it, who really wants to have to grub in the sand for a living?

Stingrays frequently lay buried in the sand and use their barbed tail to protect themselves from danger from above. However, stingrays are not aggressive and will flee from danger whenever possible.

Since rays' eyes are located on the top of their bodies and their mouths are hidden on their flat underside, they cannot see what they are feeding on. They instead sense it through highly developed electro-receptors combined with an acute sense of smell and touch. In their natural state, they slowly patrol the ocean floor until they sense prey, and then cover it with their body and suck it up.

Feeding Southern Stingrays (Dasyatis americana)

Photograph by Carlos Villoch

© 2001 by Image Quest 3-D
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Due to the extreme popularity of Stingray City, a new spot called Sandbar was created a few years ago. Sandbar is also located in the North Sound within the protection of the barrier reef. This shallow area is barely one meter deep and is very convenient for those who can't dive but would still like to play with the stingrays. In Sandbar people can enjoy the contact with the rays while they snorkel or stand up. Around the Sandbar, in about three or four meters of water, stingrays abound, so some of the dive operators prefer to come to this place for their Stingray City dives. The water is usually clearer in this spot, making it preferable for underwater photographers. Also, a small detail to take into account is that in Sandbar there are not yellow tail snappers. These voracious fish known as Cayman piranha are very numerous in the original Stingray City and will not hesitate to bite your fingers to get the food you brought to feed the stingrays. Their bites are easy to avoid keeping the food in a closed fist and not letting any small dab sticking out. This way the yellowtail snappers will not see the food but the rays still can smell it and will come to you.

The coral heads around Stingray City are home for a variety of species of fishes including a very friendly green moray eel and a nurse shark. These creatures have grown up among the hundreds of divers that visit the area and have become part of the attraction. The divemasters know the holes where they hide and will bring them out so you can see them. Let the professionals deal with them and do not try to feed these small toothy beasts yourself. Although they are used to people, they are wild animals that can behave unpredictably under inexperienced hands.

Most dive centres in Grand Cayman offer trips to Stingray City. Prices range between 40 and 70 dollars. It can be done as a single dive or in combination with a highly recommended wall dive in the North Wall. Leaving from any of the harbours in the north side, the dive boat takes about twenty minutes to get to Stingray City. You have time to get your equipment ready; it is advised to use some extra weight in order to kneel comfortably on the bottom. To protect the stingrays, divers should not wear gloves, knifes or snorkels. This way we avoid taking off the layer of protective mucus from the ray's skin and expose it to potentially deadly infections when they rub up against us. Once in the spot, and before you jump in the area, the divemaster explains the best way to deal with and feed the rays. With only one piece of squid (their favourite food) you can enjoy the company of several stingrays as long as you keep the food with you. If you give it up to the first stingray, it will eat it and won't come back. When the stingray comes to you attracted by the smell of the squid, the trick is to keep moving the piece of food in front of the ray's nose. This way you can make the stingray follow your hand wherever you want. When you finally decide to feed a ray your piece of bait, hold it in the palm of your hand with your fingers stiff so that your palm is very flat. The ray will come in and just vacuum that bit of food right up.

During the first few minutes of the dive it can get a little bit intimidating when you see several huge stingrays coming straight to you without intention to stop, bumping into you and sucking up on anything sticking out of your body with their vacuum-cleaner-mouths. Calm down and think that thousands and thousands of folks have visited these two sites in the past ten years without being ripped to shreds by killer, man-eating rays. You'll probably survive it as well. Once you realize you are out of danger is when you will enjoy this amazing experience and you will never want to leave the water. Back in boat it is funny to listen to the different ways people describe the smoothness of the stingrays underside: "like a big mushroom", "like a baby's butt", "like a wet marshmallow"...

Besides Southern Stingrays, there are other species of rays that we can find in the waters of the Cayman Islands. Spotted Eagle Rays are frequently seen gliding along the walls around the island. Yellow Stingrays are a small species of ray that inhabitant shallow sandy areas. Other species like the Electric Caribbean Torpedo or Manta rays are rarely found by divers. Southern Stingrays are definitely the most common ray in the Caymans, not only in the water, but all around the island, from T-shirts and fridge magnets to a new local beer called Stingray.

When Columbus discovered the islands he named them Tortugas (Spanish for turtles), later they changed the name to Caymans for the abundance of alligators and crocodiles in the past. I wonder if one day we will see "The Stingrays Islands" on the map...

Southern Stingray (Dasyatis americana)

Photograph by Carlos Villoch

© 2001 by Image Quest 3-D
Read our copyright notice

 

This short article was written by Carlos Villoch

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