Stingray City is a must-see on a port of call in Grand Cayman

 

Detroit Free Press

To remember your visit to Stingray City sandbar, you can buy a souvenir video for $55. The picture will be of you. You just won't hear your voice.

"There is no sound in the video because we put music on it to cover up the screaming," explains a ponytailed videographer aboard the little boat Amazon as it chugs into glistening North Sound.

Screaming? Cover up the screaming?

Not to worry.

You do scream when you jump into the ocean to meet schools of stingrays. But not because they hurt you.

You scream because it feels really strange to be bumped by rubbery sea animals.

You scream because you're standing on a sandbar miles out in the sea.

You do scream. Right before you laugh.

"I don't like the ocean, but I loved this," says Denny McKee of Knoxville, Ill., dripping wet and smiling after his brush with the rays.

A year after a stingray barb pierced the heart of Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin and killed the naturalist off the Australian coast, stingray tourism half a world away in the Cayman Islands is as busy as ever.

"We never had any downturn," says Clara Bush-Young, operations manager of Cayman Land and Sea Cooperative, which runs daily tours of Stingray City sandbar.

"Here they are tame. People hold them, kiss them, hug them."

Half of all overnight visitors to the Cayman Islands visit Stingray City. Half of all shore excursions from cruise ships head there, too, according to the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism.

At the sandbar, 25 minutes by boat into the sound, stingrays have congregated in the 4-foot-deep water since fishermen started throwing scraps off boats decades ago.

There, even the most timid vacationer can slip into the warm emerald water and let the fish with the long black serrated tails glide past their legs.

The diamond-shaped rays are big, 3 or 4 feet across. You would be big, too, if you had a constant diet of yummy hand-fed squid.

Tourists can feed the stingrays squid out of a white plastic bucket.

"Don't try to feed them through their eyes," a guide warns.

It sounds obvious, but it's a rookie mistake, because a stingray's hooded, inky eyes are on top of its flat body; the mouth is on the bottom side.

"Eeee!" "Aaahhhhh!" squeal the women as the rays bump past at chest level.

"Oohhhhh," shout some of the men, jumping with surprise at low-swimming creatures grazing their legs.

Some people use snorkeling equipment to see the animals underwater, but there really is no need because the water is so clear and shallow. Guides grab hold of stingrays so you can kiss or pat one for a few seconds, just enough time to take a picture.

And what about poison-spined barbed tails? These rays are a gentler species than the bull ray that sent Steve Irwin to his grave, says Bush-Young: "The stingray that hit Irwin, he was wild, he was not tame and he was scared."

The Caribbean's original stingray attraction can get very crowded. There were about 40 people and four boats when I was there on a fall morning visit, but by the time we left, 10 boats were arriving and hundreds of people were going into the water.

While some animal advocates are appalled at the existence of Stingray City with its fish-feeding tourism, new Cayman government regulations are at least putting some weak restrictions on the site.

The maximum visitor limit at any one time now is 20 boats and 1,500 passengers. Less food can be fed to the rays by the tour boat people. Boats must be licensed.

And the busy Stingray sandbar isn't for everyone. Strong swimmers, snorkelers and divers should head instead for the deeper part of Stingray City or fish-rich dive sites like Barrier Reef or Coral Gardens. The Cayman Islands is one of the top diving destinations in the world.

But for lousy swimmers and scaredy-cat snorkelers, this place lets them feel just for a moment what it's like to mingle with undersea life.

"I don't like water up over here," says Steve Mills, McKee's friend, drawing a line across his chest. "I'm not a swimmer. So this was great."

He smiles all the way back to shore.

___

IF YOU GO:

Tours start at about $40 per person. Here are samples of the tours available, but contact the firm directly or book through your cruise ship for more choices:

-Moby Dick Tours features small boats that take groups and individuals to the sandbar (www.mobydicktours.com, 480-626-5429).

-Dexter's Fantasea Tours offers tours to both Stingray City and the barrier reef, which lets you snorkel in 6 to 8 feet of water (www.dexters-fantaseatours.com, 345-949-2182).

-Caymanian Land and Sea Cooperative offers similar trips to the sandbar (www.caymanianlandsea.com, 345-946-8889).

-Red Sail Sports offers Stingray City catamaran sails that include lunch, a visit to both the sandbar and the deeper snorkeling site (www.redsailcayman.com, 402-537-6803).

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