Snorkeling Stingray City

Brush Up against the Graceful Inhabitants of Grand Cayman's North Sound
By Belkis Kambach
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Stingrays at the bottom of the sea floor
Stingrays lingering at the bottom of the sea floor
What Exactly is a Stingray?

A"ray" is a type of broad, flattened, cartilaginous fish closely related to the sharks. Rajiformes consists of approximately 340 species of rays, which can be classified into seven major families: electric rays, sawfish, guitarfish, "true" rays, stingrays, eagle rays, and manta rays. In Grand Cayman, although there are also many eagle rays and an occasional manta ray, generally the most commonly found is the southern ray.

Atlantic stingray (Dasyatis Americana): is the most common of the stingray family and can be found from New Jersey to Brazil. Stingrays take their name from the barbed spines at the base of their long, whiplike tail. Rays have broad, flat, almost disk-shape bodies with no distinct head. They have eyes on top, a blunt but slightly pointed snout, and large pectoral fins on the side with which they gracefully swim. Stingrays have strong, heavy cartilage dental plates with which they crush their food. Southern stingrays have white underbellies and slate gray, brown, or black upper surfaces. Wingspan can reach six feet; however, males are noticeably smaller than females. Stingrays bear live young.

Eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari): is common throughout the Caribbean and certainly common along the North Wall in Grand Cayman. Like other rays, such as the stingray, eagle rays feed on mollusks and crustaceans. They can reach up to eight feet across the wingspan. An average-to large-size eagle ray witha five-foot six-inch wingspan may weigh approximately 150 pounds.

Manta ray (Manta birostris Mantas): is the largest of the rays and can grow to a wingspan of over twenty feet and a weight of over three thousand pounds. Apart from size, the most noticeable difference between mantas and other rays are the "cephalic fins" extending forward from the eyes, sometimes carried rolled up. Mantas are dark brown to black. Mantas have live births and, in all recorded cases, have had only a single embryo. Embryos weigh twenty pounds and measure over fifty inches.



Want to snorkel amongst prehistoric-looking creatures? And actually feed the giant but graceful fish with morsels of squid? Consider a visit to a special sandbar on the northwest corner of Grand Cayman's North Sound.

As we got to our destination three giant ones greeted me, swimming toward what they thought was their morning's first snack. This eerie trio of graceful beauties brushed by to suck up the morsels of squid and ballyhoo fish I had brought for the group to offer. They came in and just vacuumed the bits of fish right up (such an incredible feeling!). This was a somewhat surreal intermingling of species and an unimaginable ballet of stingrays. I found that I was both terrified and exhilarated.

"No one has ever been stung," I kept reassuring my passengers. "Don't get excited and jump around. They don't like that." Yet I was the first one ready to jump out after the first ray kissed and sucked my leg! The only thing stopping me, of course, was the fear of losing my job. I was the group leader, and it wouldn't have looked good on my reference letter had they all gone back to tell the Captain that I had left them alone in a sea infested with killer stingrays after they payed thousands of dollars for a three-month around-the-world cruise.

Habituation of the Stingray

The island's tourism industry focuses on these creatures, and even the local beer is named after them. Stingray City is the permanent home of over thirty of the graceful beauties, which are fed by more than 100,000 visitors a year. There are no nets to pen them in and free squid keeps them there year-round.

The sandbar is located in the shallow waters of the northwest corner of Grand Cayman's North Sound. Inside, a natural channel passes through the barrier reef, which explains not only where Stingray City is, but also why it is there. Fishermen used to dock here, and naturally it was here that they used to clean and fillet their catch before heading to the harbor. They tossed the waste overboard, and the rays took advantage of this free supper. Makes sense when you think of it, as who really wants to have to grub in the sand for lunch?

Years went by, and eventually local divers realized that not only were there a lot of rays, but you could safely get in the water with them and feed them. A decade and a half later, Stingray City is known to divers throughout the world. The rays have become accustomed to and perhaps dependent on the tourists, who bring with them morsels of fish and squid to encourage their encounters.

These active, free-swimming rays love cruising along the walls and drop-offs, traveling alone and in pairs. They are graceful yet powerful as they travel up and down through the water column. They rise from the depths below two hundred feet right up to sixty feet along the wall edge and go right back down in just a few seconds. But mostly, they love to just glide along the top of the wall in a seemingly endless reverie.

Getting Sucked UpAll the feeding going on can confuse them, and since they don't feed by sight, they just start sucking as they approach the food source, which in most cases here is you! It's not rude manners on their part, after all they're just after a free lunch. With cut-up bits of squid or ballyhoo fish, you'll easily be able to hand-feed the rays.

Many tourists just let go of the bait the first time the ray misses the fish, and it gets taken by one of the ever-present Caymanian sergeant majors and yellow tail snappers. These fish are actually the real threat here, as they can come and give you a rather sharp bite on the finger to help encourage you to give them the bait. You should also understand that sometimes the rays are rambunctious and can actually bump into snorkelers in attempting to get fed.

The Cayman Islands are with no doubt the best place in the world to snorkel with these magnificent creatures, peaceful and serene in this aquatic paradise. The water is warm, turquoise, and clear, the stingrays are friendly, playful, and eager to interact with humans. With a gentle attitude, strong legs, and a good pair of fins, you will be allowed to approach and even accompany them in their patrols.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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