"Get out of the water! A shark!”
We had been in for only a few minutes when we saw the telltale shark fin slice through the water directly toward us. This was something we hadn’t bargained for. We’d signed up to swim with stingrays off Grand Cayman, not sharks.
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“Don’t panic. It’s only a sand shark. It won’t hurt you.”
We were confident enough in Captain JP (Just Perfect when asked what the initials stood for) to believe him.
A few months before heading to Grand Cayman, I called Jane, an old friend, to tell her that my husband, Tony, and I were going to swim with the stingrays. My news was met with stunned silence on the other end of the phone.
“You’re going to Stingray City? Bruce and I did that when we cruised the West Indies,” she said apprehensively. “I was never so scared in my life.”
“Really? What was so scary about it?” I asked, gripping the telephone receiver a little tighter.
“Well, for one thing, they look like giant portabella mushrooms,” she said. “When a stingray brushed past me, I screamed and jumped on Bruce’s back and hung on for dear life. Why not go swimming with the dolphins instead?”
Jane is one of the most courageous, adventurous people I know. If she jumped on her husband’s back and stayed there, where did that leave me? Tony had already given me the word – he wasn’t going anywhere near the stingrays, not after what happened to Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin.
What choice did I have? I’d already told everyone we knew we were going to swim with the rays, and there was no turning back.
The day of our perfect excursion in mid-February was a balmy 80 degrees and sunny. We drove the half hour from the beautiful Reef resort, where we enjoyed the quiet ambience of the east end of Grand Cayman, and arrived at the busy launching dock at Rum Point just in time for our three-hour cruise with Red Sail Sports. Once the mainsail on our 65-foot luxurious catamaran, the Spirit of Ppalu, was hoisted, we set out from the northwest corner of Grand Cayman and arrived at Stingray City in less than 30 minutes. The 50 or so people aboard were from all over the globe – South Africa, Canada, Australia and everywhere in between.
In years past, people who fished for a living gathered at Stingray City’s sandbar to clean and fillet their catch of the day. They tossed off their fish guts into the shallow water around the sandbar, figuring that the fish would enjoy a feast. But the stingrays were the gluttons. Eventually, local divers found that the rays could be fed by hand. Now, Stingray City is one of Grand Cayman’s most popular attractions enjoyed by tourists who cruise to the island or arrive by air.
Captain JP pronounced the day excellent for viewing these prehistoric looking creatures and explained that because the weather was so good, they would probably be swimming near the surface waiting for us to feed them the squid he would provide. “These stingrays are tame,” he said reassuringly. “They’re our pets.”
Even so, JP cautioned us, saying that if the juice from the squid ended up on our skin, the stingrays would suck on the juice, leaving behind a trail of “hickeys” that would turn into minor bruises.
JP explained that stingrays can’t see what they’re feeding on (their eyes are on the top of their heads; their mouths on the underside), and they eat by sucking food into their mouths between two hard dental plates. At times they’re confused by all the feeding, hence the sucking. Feeding a horse underwater is comparable to feeding a stingray, he said.
Anchored at the sandbar, passengers stood on both sides of the catamaran and scanned the water. Soon, a school of stingrays, some as big as kitchen tables, swam portside. After receiving a short lesson on how to snorkel properly, a staircase at both ends of the catamaran opened up so we could access the warm, crystalline water.
“Everyone in the pool!” JP called out.
I hesitated. “Well, go on,” Tony urged.
A tourist from Fort Lauderdale, chimed in. “Don’t worry,” she said. “This is the second time for me.” She pointed to her travel companion and said, “If she can do it, so can you.” I later learned that her other pastime was racing motorcycles, so swimming with the stingrays was no skin off her leather chaps.
Adrenaline rushed through my veins as I headed down the stairway.
The creatures moved through the water with the grace of ballet dancers. For a while I sat on the bottom step watching them, not daring to get into the water. Finally, I took the plunge. A stingray swished by, and had my eyes been closed, I might have thought I was in a fabric store sampling the softest swatches of satin. The ray made an about face, and this time my hand brushed the sandpaper-like top of its head.
We navigated the waist-deep water by sliding our feet along the bottom of the ocean (known as the stingray shuffle) instead of taking steps. Stingrays often bury themselves in the sand, and if they detect movement, they will flee. The last thing we wanted to do was offend a stingray by stepping on it.
The rays had white underbellies and slate gray, brown and occasionally black upper surfaces. Unlike Jane’s analogy, I thought they resembled giant underwater bats. One woman nearby was feeding the rays squid, and one leaped out of the water and “kissed” her. “That happens a lot,” said JP. “I told you they’re tame, but they’re also lovers of people.”
We swam with the rays for 45 minutes before climbing aboard the Spirit of Ppalu and heading off to a coral reef a quick ride away. Think tropical forest and monkeys, parrots and wild orchids come to mind, but this underwater tropical forest 12 feet deep plays host to magnificent marine life. The booty from shipwrecks draws scuba divers from all over the world and snorkelers photograph the fabulous reefs where sea turtles, parrot fish and moray eels spend their lives in bliss.
On the return trip to Rum Point, one passenger commented, “Swimming with the stingrays was something I’ve always dreamed of doing, but when Steve Irwin was attacked my dream died with him. Now I can disregard the myth that they’re dangerous creatures. I can’t wait to do it again!”
Well, why not? The rays, we discovered, were harmless. They had become our friends, our pets.
If you go:
Getting to Grand Cayman: Cayman Airways from New York (www.caymanairways.com)
Where to stay: The Reef Resort (1-888-232-0541 toll free)
Red Sail Sports Stingray City Package: visit www.redsailcayman.com