Return to Cayman – Getting to know the sting rays

The guides took the lead and from a bucket they held above the water they took some small squid and first placed it gently on the surface.  A ray immediately approached , covered the squid and when it had moved on the sea was empty again.  Next the guide carefully held another morsel a few inches under the surface, and the ray came across.  We were invited by the guide to do the same.  Sometimes the ray would suck it up as it passed, other times you could hold it up and it would reach up to snatch it from your fingers.

The rays passed close by and with both the water’s clarity and shallowness you could see every detail.  There was the  gentle motion of the wings as they propelled the fish through the water, and the long tail with the nicely shaped hydrofoil at the tip to steady to do the steering.  And if you looked closely (but not too closely) you can see the groove in the tail where the ray stores the sting which gives it its name.  It did take a little convincing amongst some of the party to accept that sting rays are very passive creatures, and the safety briefing aboard the boat had set out how we should act in the water to prevent the sting ray from being disturbed and causing it to defend itself.  No sudden movements, let the creatures come to you not vice versa.

We were told we could stroke the sting rays, but not actively.  If we put our hands in the water you found the rays would come right up to and run their backs through your fingers.  They were keen to investigate these curious pink and black creatures that kept on turning up every day.  While I would be looking at another squadron of fish heading our way, I would feel the tender soft touch of a ray’s wing fondling my knee.  Softness is the sensation, it was almost affectionate the way they would be so tactile with you – not merely brushing against you as they passed but staying close to you for a while and rubbing the wing up and down your skin.

The guides encouraged you to hold the rays, put both hands in and they would steer themselves onto your forearms.  You could lift them gently up out of the water, maybe put your face close to their pointed fronts as if to kiss.  I could see that while they tolerated this it was not their favourite game, and one so manhandled in this way would usually decide he wanted some space and swim away from our group.

Return to Cayman – Meeting the rays

The conference over, there was a little free time the next day before we needed to head for the airport and several of us who did not have high level meetings to attend or other business on Cayman thought about how we might spend it.  Top of the list was Cayman’s number one environmental hot spot , more known that even the Turtle Farm.  To reach it we had to head out on to the water and into that major lagoon that Grand Cayman surrounds.  The launch spot for this trip was not so far from the hotel and we all boarded a powerful cruiser and pulled slowly down the channel between the mansions and villas.  Beyond the mangroves, the captain threw down the throttle and we surged out into the North Sound.  It took less than ten minutes to reach our spot, a sandy bar not far from the lip of the lagoon where it hit the coral reefs and the Caribbean Sea beyond.  It was so shallow here, the turquoise water was as azure as…. well more like topaz, but I’m not a specialist on precious stones. And for some curious reason a crowd of a dozen tourists were standing still up to their thighs in water, some barely up to their knees.

We were about to do the same thing. The boat had been brought to a steady slow cruise as we approached the sand bar and now it was stationery, a small anchor locked into the sand beneath to keep us in the same position.  We were given instructions by the crew and one by one we lowered ourselves down the ladder astern and stood in the water waiting for things to happen.

It did not take long – from across the sand came a squadron of dark rhombus shapes. They swooped in fast, decelerated as one and broke formation to disperse amongst the tourist groups.  We were now completely surrounded by about a hundred sting rays.  Despite their name and fearsome reputation, they were the gentlest and most inquisitive fish I have ever come across.