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Stingray City
North Sound, Grand Cayman

The world's greatest 12' dive!

How it all came to be:

Stingray City is located in the shallow waters of the northwest corner of Grand Cayman's North Sound. It's just inside a natural channel which passes through the barrier reef. That's important to know, as it explains not only where Stingray City is, but also why it is.

Stingrays are bottom dwellers who feed primarily on mollusks 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 this channel because that's where they find their food.

Fisherman used to duck in here, behind the the reef, to find calm water before returning to the dock. Rather than spill their beer and have sharp knives and fish guts flung about the boat while on open water, they naturally waited to return to the sound to clean and fillet their catch. Disposing of the offal was easy, toss it overboard in the shallow water, there's no one out here and the fish will eat it! It was fat city for the rays!

Well, years went by, and eventually some local divers realized that, not only were there were a lot of rays out there but you could get in the water with them and feed them by hand  (Divers will try most anything, given enough time and air!).  Then in 1987, Skin Diver Magazine found out about it, sent Geri Murphy down to do a story on the whole thing and the rest was, as you say it, history!

Now, over ten years later, Stingray City and a second site near Rum Point Channel, called Sandbar, have hit the big time. Known throughout the world, featured on prestigious television documentaries, and seen as underwater advertising backdrops for everything from automobiles to 9v batteries, Stingray City and Sandbar are no longer quite undiscovered.

But for every diver or snorkeler who dares get in that water for their first time this year, with these prehistoric looking creatures lurking just below their toes, the adrenaline still flows and the heart still pumps. It is still a world-class experience.

This is not a penned up, artificial, man-made aquarium setting with captive rays like they setup in the Bahamas in 1995. 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?

How to survive it all:

There really isn't that much to actually have to survive out there (other than that bright sun directly overhead, burning into every exposed part of your body). 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.

If you are going to get in the water, here's a couple of hints for a more pleasurable experience.

If you dive or deep snorkel, wear a "skin" or light wet-suit to protect from stingray "hickies." Stingrays cannot see what they are feeding upon and they eat by sucking the food into their mouths between two hard dental plates. Sometimes they can get confused by all the feeding going on, and since they don't feed by sight, they just start sucking as they approach the food source (divers). It's not bad intent or rude manners on their part, after all they're there to feed - you're the one who's on this higher "inter-species contact" level - they're just after a free lunch!

Feeding them has been compared to feeding a horse, while underwater - watch your fingers. Your guide will probably have cut-up bits of squid or ballyhoo fish to feed to the rays and will give you a piece or two at a time to feed them. (Helpful hint to advanced divers: put a piece or two in your buddy's BC pocket for that old mysterious animal magnetism underwater.)

Remember, this isn't Fido - you can't just toss the fish up in the "air" and expect the ray to jump and catch it. Also remember, the ray hunts by sense of smell so you can lead a ray around for quite a while with just one piece of bait - actually just long enough to get bushwhacked by another ray coming in from another angle. When you finally decide to feed a ray your piece of bait, hold it in the palm of your hand with your fingers pointed away from your hand so that your palm is very flat or bent back. The ray will come in and just vacuum that bit of fish right up.

Many folks just let go of the bait the first time or two - the ray misses the fish and it gets taken by one of the ever-present Cayman Piranha (Sergeant Majors and Yellow Tail Snappers). These fish are actually the real threat here, they can come and give you a rather sharp bite on the finger to help encourage you to give them the bait.

If you don't want to feed the rays, keep your hands to yourself. If you get nervous, just fold your arms across your chest and cover each hand with your opposite arm. You should understand that sometimes the rays are rambunctious and can actually bump into divers in attempting to get fed. Remember that they live on the bottom and hunt by smell, so you can either just back off from the group who's feeding them and observe from a distance or go back up to the surface and watch from up there for a bit.

Be sure not to wear dive gloves while diving or snorkeling with the rays. The fabric of the gloves can easily strip off the layers of protective mucus from the ray's skin and expose it to potentially deadly infection. There is absolutely no reason or need to wear gloves at Stingray City or Sandbar.

Keep in mind that these are wild animals and will not take kindly to folks trying to ride them or pull their tails. They are capable of inflicting a rather serious injury with the stinger on their tail if you attempt to ride or harass them physically. On the other hand, while rather forward in their feeding habits, they are not aggressive animals and will not try to ride you or pull your tail.

Here's some related links to follow:

Or, we can continue our review of Cayman fauna.

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Last update: 17 February 1999
Copyright © 1999 Don Backstrom
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