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Divers support Stingray City protection

Snorkeler meets a curious and friendly stingray at the Sandbar in Grand Cayman.
Snorkeler meets a curious and friendly stingray at the Sandbar in Grand Cayman.
Photo by Steve Broadbelt, Ocean Frontiers. (Permission granted by Adela Gonzales White)

If you are searching for a year-round destination with plenty of satisfying surf and succulent sunrises finished off with unsurpassed sunsets, there is no better island to visit than the Cayman Islands.

Grand Cayman is a diver's paradise of pleasure and a water enthusiast's dream come true. As part of the tradition of the Cayman Islands, it is customary to book a morning or afternoon dive/snorkel excursion to Stingray City. For 30 years, this has been a popular adventure which takes place in pristine crystal blue waters where both snorkelers and divers alike are able to experience first-hand all the magic that takes place when they interact with dozens of friendly stingrays. Head over to the North Sound and you will be in the midst of Stingray City.

These celebrity rays have enjoyed notoriety, being featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, the cover of National Geographic Magazine and many of the most prominent dive publications. Al Roker, of NBC's Today Show, decided to dive with the stingrays in 1989, introducing all his viewers to these slippery yet fun-loving creatures from the Cayman Islands.

Not only is Stingray City world-renowned, but the local tourism industry is forever grateful for all the contributions that this underwater city makes to the economy.

However, just like turtles and sharks, stingrays deserve protection too so they can avoid extinction. That is why, with the support of the dive industry, these Cayman celebrity stingrays have become fully and legally protected by the Cayman Islands Government, which also extends protection to the Eagle Rays and Manta Rays in the local waters as well. Members of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association have always supported efforts to protect the Southern Stingray and the move by the government is welcomed. Everyone recognizes and understands how vital Stingray City is to Cayman’s tourism product.

So how did this become the #1 dive and snorkel spot in all of the Cayman Islands and around the world? Local fishermen would clean their catch in the shallow water of North Sound many years ago. This, in turn, attracted stingrays as they are known to be bottom feeders. Divemasters who were up on their surface intervals began noticing that the stingrays began to come towards this area in large numbers and so they began to feed them as well. This attracted even more. The creatures were docile and destroyed all rumors of dangerous stingrays.

“It's a natural aquarium, not man-made. No stingrays are caught and kept in captivity so it's authentic and the rays come and go as they so please,” says Nancy Easterbrook, owner of Divetech. “In addition to playing with the gentle Southern Stingrays, green moray eels will visit you, school of blue tangs and snappers and small coral heads reveal their inhabitants if you stop and look closely. In 12 feet of crystal clear water, it's the ideal photographers dream - no wonder millions have visited the site over the years and has a special place in their dive logs.”

The Cayman Islands Department of Environment introduced guidelines in 2007 to manage traffic at the stingray sites and actual handling of the rays. Dive operators emphasize these rules to visitors before they enter the water. By driving the point home, it makes the divers and snorkelers more cautious and more aware, treating the stingrays with greater respect. It also serves as a great learning environment and knowledge-building session of marine life.

An annual census by conservationist Guy Harvey, with assistance and oversight by the Department of Environment, helps monitor the health of the rays and the dynamics at both sites. According to the latest count 90 stingrays frequent both Stingray City and the Sandbar. Most are female and many of them are pregnant. This year 48 new stingrays have been tagged in the census.

This should be one of your bucket list items and no matter how many times you are lucky enough to visit and experience, it will continuously draw you back again and again to frolic and swim with the stingrays of Stingray City.

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