Surrounded By Stingrays;
What Would You Do?
IT'S THE 10TH ANNIVERSARY OF
THE BEST 12 FOOT DIVE IN THE WORLD
BY WALT STEARNS, Jun. 1997
Propelled by the graceful undulations of their broad, wing-like pectoral fins, they glide through the water, inches above the rippled sand bottom. The large rays coming toward us were on a mission; our handouts of chopped squid were the booty.
In their quest, they will go from diver to diver, swirling vigorously around, under and over, until the food is discovered. Then they hover and circle like a squadron of giant bats, quickly inhaling the surrendered morsels with ravenous gusto.
The stars of the show at Stingray City are Southern Stingrays (Dasyatis americana). The males are smaller on average, with a wingspan of two feet, while the females can exceed five feet.
The Cayman Islands offer some of the most distinctive and exalted diving in the Caribbean but it is the interactions with these friendly members of the shark clan that have become the region's signature. First time visitors may find the spectacle bewildering and downright chaotic but, in actuality, it is really a lot of fun. Even after countless dives with these stingrays , I still find them amazing. They are a blast to photograph and can be astonishingly gentle, allowing themselves to be touched and even supported by out-stretched arms. The feel of their soft underbellies is strikingly similar to velvet.
Since the discovery of Stingray City ten years ago, the rays have forever changed in our perception. Once we thought of them as fearsome beasts, now we see them as graceful, benign creatures. While divers most often visit Stingray City, at nearby Sandbar snorkelers have the same opportunities for safe, full contact encounters in water as shallow as three feet.
Seven days a week, 365 days a year, the extraordinary ritual of diver meets ray happens like clockwork. Often, before the first person can enter the crystalline water, the rays have gathered in large numbers below the boat's swim platform. Back in 1987, when divemasters first began feeding the rays, there were between 10 and 14. Now there are more than eight dozen.
This 'petting zoo free-for-all' is an intriguing phenomenon. It is not the natural behavior of a wild ray, let alone several dozen of them. Most stingrays are wary solitary hunters, spending their time searching for food on the ocean floor and trying not to become a meal themselves. The rays in North Sound move about in large aggregations, seeking handouts from any visitor willing to enter the water.
The reason for this behavior is no mystery. For more than five decades, local fishermen have anchored in the North Sound's protected waters at the end of the day to clean their catch. The rays discovered the discarded scraps of fish and, through a form of classical conditioning, learned that following the vessels would provide an easy feast.
In the early days of diving North Wall, the first deep dive was followed by a surface interval at this same sheltered area. Using this time to snorkel, Pat Kenney and Jay Ireland of Bob Soto's Diving, Ltd., noticed the rays' attraction to their boat. They became intrigued by the possibilities of interacting with the rays and began experimenting in the early part 1986. According to Pat, 'Nobody knew much about the behavior of these things, so we really didn't know what to expect.'
Because of the serrated, razor sharp spine (sometimes up to six inches long) near the base of the whip-like tail, the stingray was considered a creature to avoid. But, to Pat and Jay's surprise, they found these rays could be handfed and, more amazingly, actually handled.
Until the summer of 1987, still unsure of the rays' behavior, only Pat and Jay did the feeding. Soon word began to spread. More and more divers tried feeding the friendly stingrays.
Over the years, the rays of both Stingray City and Sandbar have become, perhaps, the single most celebrated and filmed underwater site on the globe; appearing in virtually every sport diving magazine in the U.S., Europe and Japan. The phenomenon has even been a cover story for National Geographic (January 1989), with a segment appearing on its TV series Geographic Explorer. To say the least, the rays have rubbed fin tips with the most comprehensive list of famous U/W cinematographers and photographers in the diving industry; Stan Waterman, Jack McKenney, Marty Snyderman, Howard Hall, David Doubilet, Stephen Frink, Rick Frehsee and more.
Of course, underwater photographers/cinematographers are not the only ones who come here. Watersport operations of all types make daily feeding sessions with the rays an integral part of their service. In 1996, more than one-half million divers and snorkelers visited the rays. That adds up to an average of more than 1,000 people a day!
Stingrays eat a variety of mollusks, crustaceans and, on occasion, small fish. Their eyes are on top of their heads; their mouths and nostrils are underneath. Because of this, a ray never actually sees what it eats. It locates its prey by means of a finely tuned sense of smell and touch and a set of receptors capable of detecting the faint electro-magnetic field emitted by all living creatures. Once the stingray has detected its target, it sucks it into its mouth and crushes it with a pair of powerful grinding plates. Speaking from experience, getting a finger caught in a stingray's mouth is a bit like having your fingers caught in a door. More common is a stingray hickey; expect some good natured ribbing from your dive buddies.
Some worry that this popular encounter between human and ray will inadvertently damage the rays' natural ability to forage for themselves. Take heart; according to most biologists, rays are opportunistic feeders. As long as the food is there they will stay; should the food start to disappear they will simply move on to other grounds.
If you intend to visit the rays of Stingray City or Sandbar, remember, we are visitors in their realm; handle them gently and treat them with respect. It is seldom the marine world offers an intimate experience of this sort, where diver and sea creature can make contact without fear of harm or retribution.
Happy birthday, Stingray City, and many, many more!
Ten YEARS AGO
Skin Diver published the first magazine cover and feature story about Grand Cayman's Stingray City in September 1987.
Author/photographer Geri Murphy gave the site its name, beginning her article with that world famous Bob Hollis quote, 'This is the world's best 12 foot dive.'
During the last ten years, Stingray City has been featured in more than 1,000 magazine and newspaper articles, as well as numerous television shows and several films. Stingray City is a household word for divers around the world.
Owing to this immense press coverage and public popularity, Grand Cayman watersport operators have introduced these incredibly friendly stingrays to more than one million scuba divers, snorkelers and nondiving visitors.
This summer, the Cayman Islands are celebrating the 10th Anniversary of Stingray City as the world's most unusual scuba and snorkeling dive site. Meanwhile, the population of stingrays at Stingray City, Sandbar and other nearby sites has grown, now numbering an estimated 150 rays.