The surface of the perfectly turquoise water is upset by large, freckled bricks of sunburned human flesh. There they stand, waist-high in the distance, grouped in clumps, their bellies hanging over their red and blue swim trunks, their backs puckering over the strings holding their triangle tops precariously in place. Intermittently, they belly flop onto the surface, as though they had purpose but weren’t quick or caring enough to move themselves from point a to point b, as they bobbed facedown in the water. Each colony of flesh bricks operates as though encased in an invisible net, like a fisherman’s catch, tethered by invisible rope to the boat that deposited them there. More boats pull up, another net of humans is cast into the sea, the humans are dispersed, and their fun begins. Supposedly.
In minutes, I will join the clumsy tribes flopping about in the distance. I cannot identify with them (our companions in the van on the way to the boat were talking, in all seriousness, about the previous night’s Republican presidential debate) other than our purpose, which today, right now, is the same: swim with stingrays.
Since my significant other and I decided to take our vacation in Grand Cayman Island, everyone with advice to offer offered the same advice: “You have to go to Stingray City!” Friends told us this weeks before we got on our plane from New York, our cab driver from the airport told us this as soon as we got in his car on Grand Cayamn, every person residing on the island with two cents on tourist activities – which happens to be, every person residing on the island – also told us we had to go. “It’s the only place in the world where you can interact with stingrays in their natural habitat,” the locals said, as though interacting with stingrays must be on everyone’s list of things to do in life. Of the saltwater creatures one could swim with, as a tourist on vacation, stingrays, in the Caymans, may as well be as awesome as dolphins or sharks or even whales to a Cayman resident.
The stingrays are to Grand Cayman like Disneyland is to California, or, perhaps, prostitutes to Nevada. The stingrays at Stingray City are waiting, ready for you to slip a little squid into their mouths in exchange for a special look at their white undersides, or better yet, a rub against your hand and torso.
Theoretically, there could be nothing not to love about being in the sea with the stingrays! Our Starwood points, disposable income, and destination had presented us with a fortuitous, possibly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we stepped onto that sailboat, waterproof camera in hand, ready to file away the moments in our fanny packs of memories. With the sails still down, and the motor running – I forgot to ask our guides how the stingrays would feel about all the foot traffic if it didn’t come bearing food – the boat dropped anchor, and its operators gave us instruction.
Pieces of squid would be placed in a plastic carton that would float amongst us in the ocean. The water here is waist deep, no flippers would be necessary, but those so inclined could wear their masks and snorkels, otherwise known as the most attractive things, my boyfriend told me repeatedly throughout the trip, that one could affix to one’s head (looking sexy in snorkels are why vacation sex is so good, don’t you know). As we stood in the water, immaculately clear as these parts tended to be, we would hold the squid and wait for a stingray to come eat it. Once the stingray came to us, we could pet it, hold it, hug it – even kiss it! Among the few behaviors forbidden off-board the boat were swimming away from the boat, and grabbing the stingrays’ tails, but you could do pretty much anything else to them as long as you weren’t violent. Once we were in the water we would realize tail grabbing was of little concern, as many of the animals had half to no tail.
It’s a long slog into the water from the boat. Each tourist has to climb down one ladder since it is too shallow to jump off the side of the vessel and into the water. We are in last place, I complain to my boyfriend.
“Let’s be competitive at something that requires absolutely no competition,” he responded as I anxiously pranced around at the back of the line, careening to see the ladder over the row of pinkish, tanning backs, which seemed as hulking and slow-moving as a row of tombstones.
I am a very anxious person – one of my greatest assets on a relaxing vacation, to be sure – but I knew my concern was justified. What if everyone in front of us hogged all the stingrays, and we never got our moment with them? The day before, we had gone to the Turtle Farm – which breeds turtles for conservation and, more controversially, food – and taken adorable pictures holding turtles, which the venue (disturbingly) allows. I wanted another turtle moment today, and I sensed that we were on a boat of ray-hogging, self-serving people. (I was on the boat, after all.)
Finally, after what felt like enough time for new wrinkles had formed around my eyes, we were in the water. I pulled my mask over my face and bobbed on the surface. I saw a stingray swimming toward us immediately: he was small, dark gray, and adorable from afar! As he neared I noticed he had no tail, was scarred on the edges, and looked like he was mulching. He swam lazily toward the middle of the legs that had plunked into the sea from our ship, looking for one of his many daily handouts, in grudging acceptance of the manhandling that would come with it.
I stood up and looked at my boyfriend, who was too cool to bring his snorkel into the water but not too cool to tell me how not sexy I looked in mine. “These stingrays don’t look so good,” I told him. Nearby, though, was a puffer fish, who was not subject to the advances of tourists looking for a moderately priced thrill, and looked just fabulous.
Stingrays began congregating at Stingray City decades ago, when fisherman would clean their catch in its shallow sandbars. The rays gathered to feast on the fish guts thrown overboard; eventually divers realized they could hand feed the rays, and the amusement park it may as well be today was born. According to a study released in 2009, the rays at Stingray City are suffering terribly from the human interaction. Blood tests showed the animals have weaker immune systems than those not subjected to people. An article from the British newspaper the Guardian, dated March 29, 2009, reports:
The stingray at the site are regularly injured by boats, the scientists found, while the crowded conditions encourage parasites. The creatures have also come to rely on hand-fed squid, which stingray do not usually eat. “These impacts can have long-term health effects, in terms of reduced longevity and reduced reproductive effort,” Semeniuk said. The results will be published in the journal Biological Conservation.
I did not do any research on the environmental implications of our Stingray City trip before going out. I am morally opposed to Sea World and feeding animals in the wild, and the negative consequences this might bring to the habitants of Stingray City cursorily crossed my mind. And I know there’s no way to put this well, but I think I neglected to stroke that curiosity and investigate the matter because, well, it’s quite simply THE thing people do in the Cayman Islands. Everyone does it, everyone recommends it. But now, standing in the shallows, looking at the folks straight off the cruise ship dumped onto our boat, and then dumped into this water, grabbing at the cheaply dressed stingrays who behaved like scared prostitutes – willing to please for pay, but quite rightly unwilling to serve overtime for no more pay – the environmental impact of our excursion weighed on my boyfriend and me heavily.
As we stood in the water, no rays came up to us or touched us or flirted with us, as every human being and guidebook had told us they would. I had only seen ONE disheveled ray – surely they all wouldn’t look that bad! – and I still had my hopes up that one would come up to me and rub on my leg. Like a cat. Of course, what was about to be done to the rays hadn’t been done yet.
“I guess we have to feed them if we want them to pay attention to us,” I told my boyfriend.
We located the receptacle for the squid we were supposed to use to attract the rays. It looked like the sliced-off bottom of a plastic Drano container, and was filled with only milky looking dead squid liquid by the time we made a move for it. Our compatriots from the boat, who had previously sniped at us for letting our spray-on sunscreen blow toward their sunburned reddish skin in the wind, spilled sticky red Hawaiian punch all over the boat deck, and needlessly thrown bread and lettuce from their packed sandwiches into the ocean, had hogged the meager supply of squid and were attempting, unsuccessfully, to capture a stingray. This is where the guides come in.
Capturing a stingray in the water for those precious photo ops is not easy – which is how it should be! Rays were meant to float through the water with dignity. Rays were meant to have the right – the chance – to sting the fat tourists who dare not see them buried under the sand in the shallows near the beach resorts, and step on them, drunk of the pina coladas and lava flows they have been consuming practically intravenously since 10 a.m. They were meant to forage for the food they are meant to eat (it’s not squid), and have nice-looking, smooth, parasite-free skin and long, slender, beautiful tails. Why, the stingrays you see outside of Stringray City look like they walked out of a Nivea ad for stingray moisturizer! It just proves, as though it needed to be, that these animals are not meant to retrieve their meals from cruise ship patrons who piss and litter in their backyard, and basically hump them. But if you pay for the Stingray City experience, you can ensure these rays will do all these things that they are not meant to do – to entertain you, you big tourist! Hump away!
So once all the squid disappeared from the carton, the tour guides set about their real money-making business: stingray photo-ops. They have all the charm of a Sears portrait, and at least 100 times the guilt of posing while holding up tortured animals by their tails. The guides, experts at attracting, capturing, and handling the rays, each detain a ray from living its life long enough for the boat’s hired photographer to get a shot of everyone on the boat “hugging” and kissing the rays. After attracting the rays with squid, the guides hold the animals by their fins, encircling them with their arms as though they were a giant donut about to be handfed to paying diners.
“Come,” the guide summons the tourist. “It’s okay, come, hold her.” The guide has to hold the ray tightly while everyone has their God given moment with her for the camera – because otherwise, she definitely wouldn’t stick around. For the ray, it’s like getting filmed getting gangbanged for no pay, which is to say: bullshit.
So, summoned by the guide and emboldened by his family and fellow travelers, a tourist squats in the water, eye level with the ray, which is being held halfway out of the water, and puts his arms under the animal. The guide has to hold onto the ray the whole time, because the ray is already aggravated and disgusted with itself and ready to bolt, and knows the most disgusting part of this whole ordeal is ahead: the kiss.
After the customers hold the rays, the guide forces them to give them a kiss. Literally, a kiss. Still squatting, the ocean neck high, the thrill-seeker kisses the ray on its snout. This is the big moment for the photographer, and the guides have to make sure it’s perfect so they can sell the abominable image to their patrons on the way back to shore.
Once the stingray is rape-kissed, it’s time for the finale! “Turn around,” the guide says. “Let him give you a back massage.” Oh golly gosh, the customers squeal. So they flip themselves around, smiling with glee, as though they were sitting at the submerged stools in their hotel pool bar, and the bartender just told them the daquiris were half off until 11 a.m. And then the guide puts the ray, belly-down, on the person’s back. They squeal or guffaw – the person, not the ray – and scoot away, so the next person can get in and have their way with the same stingray, held tight by the guide, so as not to swim free into the ocean. How terrible for the tour operators that would be!
We watched tourist after tourist molest the rays, as the guide force it on every passenger but us. When it came to be our turn, we couldn’t do it. I had tears welling up in my eyes, watching this big lady stingray, her surface sickly in appearance thanks to clusters of dark, unnatural-looking spots, get manhandled for half an hour by 30 different people. I felt like I was watching a child trafficking victim I was powerless to help. I wanted everything around us to just stop. I wanted everyone to stop feeding and harassing the rays. I wanted cruise ships to just disappear altogether, to at least eliminate a great portion of the people eager to pay money to do awful things to ocean life (we later witnessed a few of them standing on brain coral). I just wanted to go fucking snorkeling.
“I don’t think I can do this,” my boyfriend said, after we’d watched most of the people on the boat have their way with the rays.
“I can’t,” I agreed. “Not only is this horribly depressing, but since they spend so much time fucking taking pictures of these people we’ll barely get any time at our two other snorkel spots. I just want to go to a reef! We’ve been here forever! Let’s be the first one back on the boat!”
Just as I was trying to set an example by running as quickly as I could in the water back to the boat, which is about as fast as slug on a sidewalk, the guide noticed us. “You two!” he called out, motioning us over to the hapless ray.
“We’re good,” my boyfriend said, before I opened my mouth and said exactly what I was thinking, which was probably that they were sick people passing on their sick ways to ignorant tourists.
Later on the boat, after we had watched our fellow tour-takers ruin some coral, we had a moment with the photographer, who sat inside the whole ride there and back, and didn’t talk to really talk to anyone the whole time either, which felt odd and kind of depressing. “You didn’t get your photo taken,” she remarked.
“I know, we felt really bad for the stingrays. They just looked terrible,” I said, as my boyfriend gave me the “shut up now” pat on my lower back.
“Aww, they like it!” she replied.
Like it? If my boyfriend wasn’t there telling me not to demean her profession in my filter-less way, I probably would have said, “Sure, just like you probably like using a vibrator covered in sand paper.”
The next day, snorkeling off the hotel beach alone while my boyfriend read his book (why read when you can snorkel? I say) I saw a beautiful leopard spotted ray, foraging in the shallows, about five feet across, with extremely fashionable pale spots dotting its back. It’s tail trailed gracefully behind it, perhaps another four feet, as it fluttered its fins and floated along the ocean bottom. This was the Elle Macpherson of stingrays: majestic, long, lean, FREE! Why couldn’t she save the rest of them from Stingray Shitty?
Clearly this one had learned what the others hadn’t, and that is that the best way to avoid interacting with tourists is to hang out in proximity to a pool with a swim-up bar. Why would they snorkel when they could get bloated off booze at the swim-up bar all day? For the most part, they wouldn’t. And for the most part, they don’t.
Installing a swim-up bar on a man-made island or floating vessel on that sandbar might be the first step to saving the rays at Stingray City. It would put a buffer between the rays and the people, and most definitely keep snooty New York save the whales types like myself, who find pool bars as appealing as showering in the gym without flip flops, away at all times.