Catch some rays in the Caymans

By Tim Rock, Lonely PlanetPublished 5th December 2011
Stingray City is often considered to be one of the best shallow dives and snorkeling spots in the world and an undoubted highlight of any trip to the Cayman Islands. This stretch of sandy seafloor in Grand Cayman's North Sound is the meeting place for southern stingrays hungry for a meal. As soon as you enter the water, several of the beautiful prehistoric-looking creatures will glide up to you to suck morsels of squid from your tentative fingers.
So, how did they get so tame? Years ago, Grand Cayman's popular North Sound has a cut in the reef which was a popular route for fishermen to enter and then sit in calm water while cleaning the day's catch. As they threw the bones and guts overboard, rays would come and feed on the discarded fish parts. These days, the fishermen have long gone but the stingrays remain, flashing their brilliant white undersides as they soar across the reef.
Those unaccustomed to seeing rays might not realize what a rare sight this is. Stingrays prefer to bury themselves under the sand, with only their bulbous eyes remaining above the ocean floor, keeping a watchful eye out for predators such as Caribbean reef sharks or hammerheads.
Should they be attacked, rays have one weapon in their arsenal -- a serrated, venomous-sheathed barb, four to eight inches long, that can be used to ward off enemies or someone settling on top of them. These can inflict a painful wound in humans which may quickly become infected, and if the barb breaks off, it must be surgically removed.
That's unlikely to happen in this unique sphere, however, where the rays have become accustomed to humans. As tempting as it seems, care should be taken not to touch these wild creatures; rays have a protective mucous on their skins, and touching them can remove this coating, leaving them vulnerable to infection.
Diving and snorkeling
A popular wading and snorkeling spot, Sandbar, is about two miles east of Stingray City. Here you can watch the rays zip through the waters to be hand-fed squid. Usually they remain here all day, departing at night in search of crustacean snacks along the reef.
Stingray City's famous diving is fun, shallow and located in a beautiful setting. A dive starts with a fascinating insight into the lives of these graceful creatures, and an on-board briefing about how to settle on the bottom and interact with them.
While this is mainly a shallow dive site, people snorkel above the feeders to watch as the water is crystal clear. Ray wranglers may even swim up with a ray or two following, to give snorkelers a closer look.
Upon descending, hungry rays will probably already be near the boat. If not, it is a thrilling sight to see a group of anywhere from four to 14 stingrays winding their way toward you across the snow white sand. Rays here have been measured at over 4 foot across and weighing over 125 pounds. There have even been reports of 6 foot rays, which far exceeds their normal adult size.
There are few places like this in the world to enjoy interaction with such an enigmatic sea creature. Many divers and snorkelers come back for second and third helpings; so don't forget to bring a waterproof camera.