Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Shuffles in the Sand With Stingrays: My Up-Close Encounter at Stingray City Bahamas

"Without a doubt, I'd venture that at least 99% of the people, who experienced the stingray encounter with me that day, left with a new (or deeper) appreciation of marine life, and our responsibility to protect it."  - Me

One of the several perks of going on a cruise - I learned last month in the Bahamas - is the option* to go on adventures (or "shore excursions") when the ship is in port. In my last post I told you about one of them - the sharks and slides of Atlantis Aquaventure. But, as crazy-exhilarating as that was, it was the up-close encounter with 40-or-so majestic southern stingrays that I'll tell stories about when I'm old (and rambling on to whomever gets within earshot).

A southern stingray resting on the sea bed
"SStringray" by Original uploader was Wrtiii3644 at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Jacob Robertson using CommonsHelper.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This is that story. 
(Note: When I'm old and going from distant memory, it's possible that I will have been a passenger on the Titanic, and the stingrays will have been whales, or seals.)

Shuffles in the Sand With Stingrays

On a small motor boat on the way to the sandbar known as Stingray City, a burly fellow presided at the bow, before a captive audience of wide-eyed tourists (myself counted among them). In his weathered hands he held a child's plush toy - a stingray - with which, during the 15-minute ride, he taught us all we needed to know about the animal's anatomy, behavior and what we could expect at the habitat.

Actual salty, burly man with stuffed stingray

I repeat: At the front of the boat, there was a salty, burly man, teaching a mini-class on stingrays, using a stuffed animal, in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, on the way to a sandbar in the middle of nowhere, where the tourists would go frolicking with a flock** of rather large, tame ones. (It was nuts!)

When the boat arrived at the enclosure - an expansive, open area of calm, mostly waist-deep, sparkling, turquoise water - we could see no rays, and no other life, besides a scattering of  Bahamian stingray "wranglers," who were awaiting our arrival.

"Walk toward the center of the enclosure and shuffle the sand at your feet," said our burly sea guide, "and watch that last step, it's a...whoa!"

He didn't need to finish the sentence, because the lady in the front of the line - the one who missed the last step and face-planted in the shallow water, with her eyes open - kindly demonstrated for us. (It's OK, only her pride was harmed.)

A starfish in the middle of my path. After I determined he was real (vs. a plastic decoration), I named him Patrick. 

They said I could pick Patrick up for a few seconds. That he was like 95% water.
He didn't talk, nor make any sudden movements.

I had no idea why I needed to shuffle my feet, but I did as I was told (have you ever tried to walk through the ocean, shuffling your feet in knee-deep water? It's an aerobic, balancing act. In other words, people like me tend to lose footing and become buoyant). Thirty-nine seconds later, they were gliding toward me - seemingly from nowhere, and with alarming speed - at least two rays, with wingspans of over four feet each.

I'm not sure whether I breathed for the next minute or so. At least until after they'd reached my legs, realized I had no food to offer them (they can smell it), and kept on gliding toward the next person.

I took this photo, after I regained my composure.

FYI: I figured out pretty quickly that shuffling lets the rays - who, when at rest, bury themselves in the sand - know to get out of the way. Additionally, it signals to these rays, in particular - who've been socialized to humans, using food - that it's snack time! So, naturally, when they sense humans in the water - even from football-field-lengths away - they drop everything and head for the source. Kind of like how seagulls follow ships to catch the fish the motor kicks to the surface.

But, holy cow, y'all! When I caught sight of that first pair of stingrays, coming straight for me, I wasn't sure if I'd faint or squeal with joy. All I could do was stand there frozen stiff, until they had safely passed.

Some folks are about to get a warm, fluttery feeling against their legs!

It wasn't long before there were so many rays swimming around and through the group's legs (like a pen full of puppies, really), that my fear gave way to cautious curiosity and amazement. I even got the courage to reach down and touch one as it glided by. (I'd already felt the silkiness of their wings, as well as the roughness of their barbed tails, against my legs.)

This one, I reached out and touched. 

Fact: Southern stingrays can't disengage their barbed tails like a bee's stinger. They can, however, when threatened by predators (e.g., sharks), curl them up over their heads scorpion-style, and deliver a nasty, venom-infused wound. In spite of this, they are naturally docile creatures, preferring to simply swim away. 

Respect the spine-tail!

What I will most remember about interacting with those rays, though, is (after volunteering to do so) taking a raw calamari squid in my fist (with thumb tucked under for safety), lifting it up under the ray's mouth (as her handler cradled her at the water's surface) and feeling the strange vacuum suction, as she slurped it right out of my hand.

I prefer my calamari deep fried and drizzled with lemon.
Also, in related news (regarding my posting of that photo)...Today's forecast in Hell: Cold with a 100% chance of flying pigs. 

Fact: Stingrays don't chew their food, but, like the inside of a duck's bill, have a spiny surface around their mouth opening to crush the shells on their prey.

Rays have big mouths. Watch those fingers, wrangler man!

Out of anxiety that not all the raw quid would be distributed, and not all the rays would be fed (which, it turns out, is never a concern, because the rays have plenty of natural prey to feed on in their habitat), I volunteered to feed a lot of rays!

Lots of feeding, I did. 

Some of the larger females (they were all female, and all had names) - just like something out of that popular, clothed sea sponge cartoon - even showed begging behavior, by gliding straight up people's legs and backs (Gary the meowing snail, anyone?), in an attempt to get picked up and fed. It was surreal. And hilarious!

Hiya, giver of tasty snacks; I'm just gonna climb up your leg and see what you've got!

via fanaru

To my delight (contrary to a few Internet reviews I'd read), we were allowed to bring our own cameras into the water and shoot as many pictures as we liked! My Olympus takes crappy pictures, but it's waterproof, so I snapped myself silly. (And, because I mostly just blindly submerged the camera, hoping it would focus on a ray, sadly, the photos were even more crappy than usual. Or, the subject was not a ray, but a close-up of someone's rear end. Oh, well.)

Besides making friendly small talk and encouraging people to interact with the rays, each of the professional handlers (called "wranglers") was knowledgeable and freely answered questions about the animals in their care. I know this, because I managed to lure one of them into a 20-minute conversation. (Although, after the first five minutes, it was mostly him doing the talking.) He - who couldn't have been older than 21 - spilled practically everything he knew about stingrays, among other salt-water things. It was clear he had respect and love for the animals, was proud of his job, and had been waiting - for who knows how long - to unload everything he'd been storing in his head on a willing pair of ears.

My new Bahamian wrangler friend

We talked about the late Steve Irwin, the circumstances of his deadly ray encounter, and the public misinformation about rays that ensued. By the end of our talk, the young man felt like an old friend to me, and I would've gladly joined him - had he asked - for a feast of his favorite meal - cracked conch salad - even though the thought of it (eating chunks of cold conch) made my stomach queasy.

Once all the squid had been eaten, and the rays had lost interest in us, it was time to go. The boat ride back buzzed with lively conversation - our small group no longer strangers, but kindred spirits. Spirits, bonded for life over a flock of puppy-like, squid-eating stingrays, somewhere in the Caribbean Sea, on a sandbar in the middle of nowhere.

My photographer helper ☺

** Optional, as in costs extra, not included in the price of the cruise. So, you better be darn sure you do your research beforehand, as I did.
* A group of stingrays travelling together is called a fever; however, I used "flock," because who the heck knows what a fever of stingrays is?

For more information about Stingray City Bahamas, visit their website. Additional information is provided for their sister location at Grand Cayman here and here.


  1. That seems cool thing to do!


  2. What a fabulous and amazing thing to do. You are so lucky as we have only seen rays in an aquarium and use to be able to feed them till health and safety put an end to that big sigh. Lovely and happy memories. Have a tremendous Thursday.
    Best wishes Molly

  3. WOW! That's all I've got right now. Wow!

  4. Holy cow what an adventure. I don't know if I would have been able to breathe either, it would all be so overwhelming to see them flock around like that. Your new wrangler friend seems awesome. Everything about that experience is awesome; something not many people will do in their lifetimes I imagine. I would never have imagined a stingray might feel silky smooth.

  5. I also did this when on a cruise down there and it was amazing! It's an experience I'll always remember. A bit scary at first then you realize how docile these creatures reall are.


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