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
Photograph by Carlos
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
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
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...
This article was written
by Carlos Villoch
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