Stingray City is on every must-see snorkel guide that’s worth reading. This undoubtedly unique experience where you’re up close and personal with the pre-historic looking rays should be on everyone’s bucket list, particularly if you plan on being in Grand Cayman.
To some, it may seem touristy, but there really is a good reason it’s the number one tourist attraction on the island. There isn’t a shortage of boat tours that will take you to the spot, either.
I went with Captain Marvin’s and had a wonderful experience. They arranged to pick me up via email right at my hotel. I got a strange look from the driver as I loaded the shuttle with my backpack full of camera gear and my sling tote of my own snorkel gear. Most people just use the snorkel, mask, and fins provided by the tour company but you’re allowed to use your own if you want to lug it along. It’s also not normal for a young girl in her twenties to be going on these kinds of excursions solo. It was fine; I made friends along the way!
The shuttle continued to pick up passengers at their lodgings and took us to the Captain Marvin’s storefront where we signed a release and paid our fee. We were then all taken a few minutes away to the boat that would take us out to Stingray City.
A little background information: Stingray City formed some decades ago when fisherman would stop after fishing off of the reef and would gut and clean their catch over the calm and shallow water near the sandbar before heading back down the North Sound. After this had become routine, stingrays developed a Pavlovian response to the sound of boat motors and began flocking to the area for food. After decades of this kind of activity, the stingrays are not only used to being fed by humans but have become accustomed to being handled as well.
On the shuttle, there were a few concerned murmurs from my fellow tourists wondering how safe this whole thing was going to be. I’m assuming the experience lost some of its mystique after Steve Irwin’s death back in 2006 which was caused by a stingray attack. The driver assured us that these stingrays are docile from being around humans for their whole lives and are really only interested in being fed. That was enough to quell everyone’s worry (for the most part).
We pulled out of the channel and our driver/guide pointed out some orange things in the trees. Iguanas, he said. I hadn’t ever really thought of iguanas as tree dwellers and found it slightly unnerving. We counted the orange dots among the green leaves as we exited the mansion-lined channel until we hit the open water.
We traveled along the bright blue water for about 15-20 minutes. It was particularly windy so my choice to hang out on the upper deck of the vessel was somewhat ill-advised. It wasn’t bad enough to be classified as cold, but it was less than pleasant.
We pulled up to a seemingly non-descript spot of turquoise water and were the first boat to pull up. If you were looking for it, you could notice some large dark things moving underwater. The week that I spent on Grand Cayman was particularly windy and rainy and others on the shuttle told me that the boat service had rescheduled the trip several times due to weather. Upon docking, we realized that the wind had made for some significant water movement and we were told repeatedly that we should only get in the water if we were confident swimmers.
For this first stop, we donned a face mask and snorkel but did not wear fins. We were warned to not spend our time in the water jumping up and down as we may disturb any rays underfoot and that could be dangerous.
The first thing I noticed when I was in the warm ocean water with the stingrays was how enormous they are. There were at least a dozen of them swarming to be fed (our guides gave us bits of chopped up squid that the rays will take right out of your hand).
I think I was most alarmed by how up-close and personal these mesmerizing swimmers get to you. I think I figured they would have to be wrangled to bring them around to the teeming tourists for a photo op but no, these guys have figured out where their meals come from and are more than willing to put on a show in the process.
I spent most of my time with my head underwater enjoying the display. They really are so graceful for being so ancient and menacing looking. I even locked eyes with one!
Our guide held one of the huge rays in his arms while offering kisses to my fellow tourists. They said that it was good luck to give the stingray a smooch—extra for all the guys who were willing to give it a peck. Of course, what we were really kissing wasn’t a lip or mouth at all as the mouths on are the underside of a stingray. I stepped up for a big kiss—and it covered nearly all of my head. I better get extra luck for that one.
There were often moments that emphasized the necessity of being a good swimmer as the waves rolled over us and kept us on our toes. A man from Canada in his 20s did not seem to take the hint seriously and was gripping the anchor rope the entire time which resulted in a gnarly looking rope burn along his side. So yeah, be able to swim if you’re going on this excursion. The water is usually calm and shallow (coming in at about three feet) but on a day where the water is less-than docile, it’s a valuable skill to have. You won’t get the most out of it if you aren’t a fair paddler.
I don’t know that you can use the word “domesticated” when referring to stingrays, but that definitely seemed to be the case with the population at Stingray City. They were nothing but friendly and gentle, despite the constant screaming of some woman who came over on another boat. I mean, I understand it’s a little disconcerting to be bumped into by a stingray that’s three feet across, but screaming really isn’t necessary.
We hit the spot on a less crowded day than usual. I think there were still some charters that didn’t venture out due to the wind. We also got there on the first boat of the day so it hadn’t yet gotten too crowded with people. I imagine on a busy day it’s more than a little cramped.
This really is a once in a lifetime kind of an experience that is unique to Grand Cayman. It’s not that expensive and it doesn’t take much away from your day. I know some people sometimes shy away from activities that they deem too “touristy,” but this is a must-see.