It had always been a dream of mine to visit the famous Stingray City, located off of the north shore of Grand Cayman Island, British West Indies, someday. So, when my mother and father suggested a Christmas cruise, heavily subsidized by them, for my family (two daughters and the missus), for my two siblings, their spouses and children, and when I found out as a bonus that one of the stops would be Stingray City (actually, Stingray Sandbar) – well, I couldn’t argue with that.
Upon arrival at Grand Cayman, an armada of majestic cruise ships, including our ship the Valor, dropped anchor offshore like an invading force (which they kind of were), and water taxis ferried passengers in to a dock with an adjacent tourist plaza (a recent post-hurricane construction project). The plaza contained all manner of shops and eating establishments, including a Tortuga rum cake shop (I love these cakes and purchased the Blue-Mountain-coffee-flavored chocolate rum cake – yum!). We were also greeted at the plaza by a carnival-like atmosphere as various purveyors hawked tours to a turtle farm, snorkeling and beach areas and tours to the renowned snorkeling sites: Stingray City and Stingray Sandbar.
Of course, we booked our tour online (here’s a tip: it is less expensive to book online or to show up and be courted by the tour operators in person). But lo and behold, the company we booked our tour through never got our reservation. Never fear, however, as we just went with one of the tour operators working the plaza – Cayman Ocean Adventures.
We were even able to work it out where my 82-year-old mother, who required a wheelchair for the duration of our cruise, was hoisted onto the shuttle bus and onto the tour boat and taken with everyone else out to the Stingray Sandbar (Stingray City is another site nearby), about 4 miles offshore.
As the boat pulled up to the Sandbar and dropped anchor, there were at least another 20 vessels forming a circle about the turquoise-blue sandbar and the crystal-clear, waist-to-chest-deep water, much like covered wagons on the Oregon Trail might have drawn together at night for security. Between those on the boats and those in the water mixing it up with the rays, the total population of Stingray Sandbar this day was several hundred humans and dozens of rays. Others had told me that they’ve seen rays in the hundreds or as one coworker who’s been put it: “It looked like an oily black slick of rays.”
In late December, the Caribbean water is bracing but quickly becomes comfortable enough to where you soon forget about it and concentrate on the true stars of the Sandbar. However, my 8-year-old daughter with great reluctance and a strong parental tug of her arm managed to pet a passing ray, which she was glad she did once she did it, but it was back in the boat with grandma and grandpa once it was fait accompli.
After our guide, a sun-baked salty sea dog with a heavy Creole accent, who with a bit of make-up could have easily been an extra on Pirates of the Caribbean, I was the second on our boat to dive into the ocean. When in the presence of genuine seafarers, landlubbers need to dispense with sticking in one tippy toe to test the water and then lowering themselves in an inch at a time; it’s just not cool.
Our captain swam after and scooped up a large momma stingray in his arms; it had to have at least a 4- probably 5-foot wingspan. Our guide allowed everyone who wanted to, to come up and pet the docile flapping ray. He also encouraged everyone to Kess da ray! Following our guide’s advice, my wife, my 13-year-old daughter and I all locked lips with the ray.
Another guide couple nearby attracted a bevy of rays because I think they were probably offering more stingray snacks than was our group. One of the guides was holding a medium-sized grayish ray while directly behind her was a male guide with a darker ray that was twice as large. The rays seem to enjoy all of the attention lavished on them. They felt like big pieces of vegetable-oil-slicked foam rubber.
The male guide informed me that the second larger ray was a pregnant female. I was told that the larger rays were females and the smaller rays were the males.
It seemed to be one big inter-species rave with Homo sapien and Dasyatis Americana partying together in total harmony. I even stepped on what I think was a ray (I need to do the “Stingray Shuffle” when walking across the sand) and felt a distinct poke to the ball of my left foot. The “ray” must of known that I meant no harm, as its warning salvo drew no blood. This was totally unlike the time in the Pacific off of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where I emerged from the surf with a nice gash in my heel; I can’t prove that in that instance it was a stingray either, but I have a feeling that it was.
My wife and 13-year-old daughter enjoyed petting and kissing the rays; my sister, her husband and their son and daughter had a blast and my parents took it all in from the boat and enjoyed themselves as well. I’ll take it on faith that my brother, his wife, two daughters and son had a great time in the water with the rays, too, as I never bumped into them at Stingray Sandbar; however, a couple of rays did bump into me and brushed up against my thighs as they glided past on their way to their next snack.
This is my second extended interaction with sea creatures in the wild. The other one was a few years ago when I went swimming with manatees off of the west coast of Florida (to see my blog about it, click here). Both the manatee and stingray experiences rival one another and sear good memories into the mind, renew one’s respect for all living creatures everywhere and makes one want to be a town crier for ocean conservation. For a truly unforgettable wildlife experience, I highly recommended that you make your way someday to Grand Cayman and Stingray City or Stingray Sandbar.