Hawaii correspondent Sophie Gaze is reporting from her home state of Florida for the summer.
The opportunity to enter a wild animal's environment and experience a safe and meaningful interaction is a rare circumstance. In February 2010, a 40-year-old Sea World trainer was killed by an aggressive orca whale in captivity. One solution to avoid such aggression demonstrated by captive animals is to avoid keeping them in captivity all together.
To visit sea creatures in their natural environment, rather than to force them into captivity is a much more meaningful experience. In the northwest corner of Grand Cayman's north sound is Stingray City, a location where visitors can stand in waste-deep, crystal clear water and find themselves surrounded by friendly, almost-tame stingrays. The stingrays at Stingray City congregate here by their own accord, and very rarely show aggression to visitors.
Stingray City began many years ago when fishing was a major industry for the Cayman Islands. The fisherman would come through the north sound channel to the calmer waters to clean their catch for the day and throw the remains in the water. This sandy-bottom environment is an ideal habitat for stingrays and soon these natural scavengers began to gather here as they associated the sound of the boats' engines with an easy meal.
Soon divers began to feed the stingrays squid, realizing that the animals were comfortable hand feeding from their fascinated human visitors. This started the formal attraction of Stingray City. As more hopeful snorkel and dive based businesses heard about the location, the site became an important part of Grand Cayman's tourism. Today there is even a local beer named after them!
There are two sites that make up Stingray City, and with this variety the stingrays are accessible to basically anyone who is comfortable getting in the water with these graceful creatures. The original site is located in 15 feet of water and is a popular scuba diving and free diving attraction, although snorkelers can enjoy it from above, as well. Some even label it as the "most famous 15-foot dive site in the world."
The second location is usually more crowded, as it is a shallow sandbar in approximately three feet of water. Visitors can comfortably stand as the stingrays swim around them in search of handouts.
Meeting the stingrays
The stingrays at Stingray City are Atlantic southern stingrays, a species that can be found from the East Coast of the United States down to the east coast of South America.
The stingrays have a flat, disc-shaped body composed of cartilage and a wingspan that can reach up to six feet. Their eyes are located on the top of the body and they breathe through spiracles located on the sides of their eyes. The water is then expelled through gills that are located underneath on either side of the mouth.
Stingrays are bottom dwelling creatures that feed on crustaceans, mollusks and, occasionally, small fish. They have two hard dental plates that they use to suck their food up like a vacuum. The stingrays use their keen sense of smell to hunt their prey.
They get their name from the pointed spine on their long, thin tails. The spine is covered in a thin film that contains the venom. This feature is a defense mechanism, and when a stingray feels threatened they will bury themselves in the sand and use their tail to protect themselves. A stingray cannot sting if it does not have the leverage of the ocean bottom to whip its tail.
Generally the males are noticeably smaller than the females. Stingrays give birth to live young, and in the Cayman Islands they use the coastal mangroves as a sanctuary to repopulate.
Many people are apprehensive toward the idea of jumping in the water filled with stingrays. Unfortunately, stingrays have a bad reputation that they do not deserve; more often than not, they are not aggressive creatures.
As a matter of fact, seeing a stingray in the wild is usually a brief and beautiful experience since they tend to take flight in the company of humans. This is why Stingray City is such a unique place, because at the sandbar and the deeper site, the stingrays interact with humans by nuzzling against them in search of squid. The feeling of a six-foot wide stingray rubbing its wings against you is an experience unlike any other!
Hand feeding the stingrays is comparable to feeding a horse. Stingrays cannot bite, but they could confuse a finger for a squid so it is important to be aware of this. As the stingrays interact with the visitors at Stingray City, they are often known to give "stingray hickies," when they suck with their mouths in search of squid along people's bodies. Due to their limited range of eyesight, the stingrays rely on their mouths and sense of smell find their food, but the "hickies" are nothing to worry about and certainly not painful.
Often the tour operators will be able to hold one of the smaller stingrays and pass it around for visitors to hold, too. The stingrays in Grand Cayman are so tame that they are relatively comfortable with this, which makes for a very memorable experience.
Steve Irwin vs. Stingray City
After Steve Irwin's death in September 2006, the public's fear of stingrays has increased due to the large amount of attention from the media
that Irwin received. Although it is important to respect any wild animal in its natural environment, to fear the stingrays at Stingray City due to Irwin's incident is unwarranted. The circumstances are very different.
The stingray that killed Irwin was a bull ray in the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. According to reports, Irwin was pierced in the chest while snorkeling above the stingray in shallow water. It is speculated that this particular stingray felt cornered, and, responding to the threat, whipped its tail. Unfortunately, the stinger pierced in a vital location, the chest, and the venom caused Irwin to enter cardiac arrest.
Stingrays in Grand Cayman are accustomed to human contact. There have been instances where people have been stung, but this is a rare occasion since most visitors who follow the guidelines can avoid it.
Irwin's career was based off expanding people's understanding and respect for wild animals, and Stingray City is a place where visitors can safely interact with these beautiful creatures.
Being stung by a stingray
On Sanibel Island off the coast of south Florida, Peter Gaze, a tourist from England, was standing in cloudy water when a stingray stung him.
"My immediate thought was that a shark had bitten me. It felt like a sharp knife being thrust into my foot," Gaze said.
Locals on the beach immediately submerged Gaze's leg into hot water, a common treatment for a stingray sting because it alters the chemical make-up of the stingray's venom. A stingray's barb usually breaks off in the wound, so Gaze was taken to a hospital for X-rays to remove the stinger.
Contact with a stingray's stinger simply causes the surrounding area to be in pain, and is very rarely life threatening unless in a vital area, such as Irwin's chest in that incident. Gaze said he experienced temporary paralysis of the foot area.
In retrospect, Gaze believes the incident could have been avoided. His advice was to "avoid drinking too many cocktails on holiday and subsequently wade around ray populated waters where you cannot see anything." Unluckily for Gaze it was also mating season, so the stingrays were particularly abundant.
In most instances of stingray stings, it is the case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and can certainly be avoided. Stingrays are also sometimes provoked when divers try to force unwanted interactions.
When standing in water with poor visibility where stingrays may be present, it is advised that swimmers shuffle their feet in the sand to scare away any stingrays in the area.
It is important to keep in mind that the stingrays at Stingray City are unusual because they are so used to the repeated interactions with humans. Just because the Caymans stingrays are friendly, for example, does not mean that a Florida stingray would be comfortable being approached by a diver intending to touch it.