Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Stingray City

GRAND CAYMAN – The brochure looked so inviting – irresistible, even – as brochures will.

Even National Geographic had referred to “Stingray City” at the Cayman Islands as one of the best experiences available between wildlife and we humans. The brochure showed people standing waist-deep in calm, turquoise waters frolicking with the UFO-shaped animals. So, we signed up.

Grand Cayman doesn’t have a cruise ship terminal, so cruise passengers must take small boats from the ship to the island. It’s not uncommon for visits to Grand Cayman to be canceled because of rough waters that don’t allow the smaller boats to operate.

On this day, the waves were high but just manageable, so off we went. Once on shore, we boarded a bus for a trip across the island to the north shore, where we boarded a two-tiered passenger boat and headed back out to sea.

I figured this would be a five-minute trip to a calm lagoon where we’d splash about with the gentle stingrays and gentler, shallow water (this is before one had killed “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin). I’m both a lousy swimmer and a coward.

No, instead we headed straight for open water, eventually anchoring more than a mile out in 20-foot waters just shore-side of a reef that broke the larger waves. This was Stingray City. No lagoon, just water and crashing waves about 50 feet away.

It’s fortunate that this particular excursion required all participants to wear small, inflated life vests because I would have felt silly being the only one to eagerly snatch one up. Neither Kathleen nor I had ever snorkeled before, so the very idea of breathing through a tube was a little spooky. My plan had been that if I became uncomfortable I’d just stand up in shallow, friendly waters and pet the stingrays bobbing around me. That’s tough to do in an ocean that’s 14 feet over your head.

Our guides started chumming – throwing stingray food overboard – and got in the water first. Before long, a dozen stingrays came alongside. I’d come this far, so I wrestled myself into the life vest, donned the goofy goggles and breathing apparatus and lowered myself into the water.

As it turns out, snorkeling is easy, particularly with the vest. In no time we had the hang of it and joined the other tourists frolicking among the stingrays, following instructions to avoid the barbed tails and to stroke the animals from front to back to avoid abrasions. It was, as National Geographic has promised, a magical experience.

Eventually, I even got up the nerve to swim a few hundred feet from the boat to the reef, despite what I considered to be some rough water – two-foot waves. At points, the reef came to within a few feet of the surface and I happily swam among the tropical fish and the ocean plant life. Again, it was magical.

I was surprised when our 90 minutes was up and it was time to clamber back aboard and head back to shore. Notwithstanding the pictures of my goofy-looking face, foggy goggles askew and hair in tangles, I felt a bit adventurous in having overcome my fear, even in the most controlled of environments, and done the deed.

We celebrated with seafood and rum drinks at a typical tourist restaurant and spent the afternoon shopping for trinkets. We even stumbled across a rum cake bakery, happily snapping up the samples and waiting in line for a couple of boxes.

Oh, stingrays have beautifully smooth, firm, gray skin and seem very friendly. Irwin must have thought so, too.

1 comment:

  1. First off, I have to say that I LOVE cruise ships.
    I spent over 12 years working on them as a Scuba Instructor,
    Shore Excursion Manager and an IT Officer.

    For 2 years I also worked shoreside in Miami as a database IT guy.

    During my years on ships, I have to stay that many things happened
    and that life is definately stranger than fiction on cruise ships.

    Many people have asked me to share the stories I have collected over
    the years, so I am complying with their request.

    My site is: www.cruiseshipstories.com

    If you had any stories of your own to add, please
    send them to me and I will be happy to add them.

    Sean B. Halliday