Stingray City, the ace in Grand Cayman's hand, is arguably the world's most popular dive site, and the graceful wild animals that live there attract hundreds of divers every day.
This site, and the nearby sand bar, both on the north shore of Grand Cayman, are home to more than 200 southern stingrays. These bottom feeders were first attracted by the local fisherman, cleaning their catches in sheltered waters before heading ashore to market.
Cayman waters are home to five species of rays, the southern stingray being the most famous. Fully grown specimens measure 1 to 1.5 m across, and they can sting using the strong barbs in their tails. The barbs face backwards yet can sting in any direction.
The rays appear totally unafraid of humans, and will envelope and almost harass divers as soon as they enter the water. They seem to have learned that as divers tend to carry food, if they distract them they will get a free meal more easily.
This is why it is best not to wear a snorkel, because the cunning stingray knows that if it knocks it, the divers mask will flood and the food will be discarded by the mask is being cleared! Stingrays one, divers nil.
Similarly, the rays have learned that divers without suits make easy targets. The rays do not have teeth, but a series of rasping plates that they use to crush the shellfish on which they normally feed. With their powerful sucking action they can give exposed skin a nasty "hicky" of that can bleed and be sore. This is all part of the game of interacting with these resourceful animals. A diver on the receiving end of such a kiss quickly surrenders the food - stingrays 2, divers nil !
Southern stingrays are the most commonly seen rays in the wild throughout the Caymans. They're generally spotted swimming gracefully over the coral or foraging for food in the sand. Here, they are almost always seen with a barjack. He waits for the Ray to dig up the sand for food and darts in, getting an easy meal before the Ray gets everything.
Of the other rays in Cayman waters, the Manta ray is more likely to be seen off Bloody Bay Wall in Little Cayman. A few years ago, a friendly female was a regular nightly visitor to a dive site called the meadows. Here Molly as she became known, would perform barrel rolls as she fed on the plankton and krill attracted to the divers torch's.
The spotted eagle ray is also regularly seen on Bloody Bay Wall. This large elusive Ray has the same graceful flight as the manta and may initially be mistaken for one. Eagle rays have snouts, not unlike a pigs, which they use to dig and forage in the sand for their diet of crustaceans and mollusks. However, they tend to be wary of divers and will swim away showing the spotted pattern on their back.
The electric or torpedo ray is much smaller and a rare sight for divers. This ray has a rounded body and electric organs that it uses to stun its prey. These can generate up to 220 volts, more than many's a Red sea liveaboard!
Finally, the yellow stingray is the baby of the Cayman rays. At a maximum of only 45 cm, this circular Ray will often be seen resting under coral outcrops when it is not feeding. It has a venomous spines at the end of its strong tail and so probably packs the punch of a heavyweight despite its small size.
While the rays of Stingray City get plenty of free meals from divers and snorkelers, there are potential dangers in the interaction. The stingray is dangerous only if trodden on or caught when it can thrash out and sting, causing serious lacerations. The danger for the stingray may be more serious as divers wearing gloves can remove the protective mucus from the fish's skin, allowing infections to develop, which can be fatal. Close encounters with these large, inquisitive and fearless animals is an interaction replete with excitement and fun for divers and snorkelers, and a great opportunity to learn about their world.