How to Snorkel with Stingrays and Starfish in the Cayman Islands
Go Face-to-Face with a Southern Ray
I often try to avoid really touristy attractions when I travel to a new place, but all I heard about the Cayman Islands while trip planning was that Stingray City is a must-see despite the thousands of tourists that visit it each day. Thousands of visitors and a cheesy name like "Stingray City?" Sounds like a tourist trap right? OH MAN, WAS I WRONG. However, just because it's a prominent tourist attraction doesn't mean I want to be surrounded by those thousands of people while I'm there. So after some perusing on TripAdvisor my two friends from college (who were my travel buddies on this particular trip) and I opted for an early morning excursion with Six Senses Grand Cayman. We suffered through waking up at 6am during our relaxing beach vacay, hopped on a boat by 7:30am and made our way with 10-12 other early birds to a sandbar a few miles off shore with the help of our wonderful Irish captain. Stingray City is one of the most popular day trips for the cruise ship crowds visiting the island so the area gets packed with boats in the afternoon. In fact, we went from being the only vessel to seeing 15+ additional boats arrive as we left, with hundreds of people vying for the attention of the stingrays that we had all to ourselves for the previous hour and a half. In this case, the early bird definitely gets the worm (or Southern Stingray).
We had the immense luck of visiting Grand Cayman during tropical storm Alberto which meant a lot of rain and very little sun. However, even with overcast and clouds, the waters of Cayman are a sight to be seen: turquoise and completely clear. As our boat neared the Stingray City sandbar we could see black shapes begin to swim alongside us. We were surrounded by stingrays, bigger than any I had seen at a zoo or aquarium and perfectly visible through the water. Our boat anchored and despite being far off shore, the sandbar we were on was only about waist-deep. We all hopped in the water and we experienced the BEST part of our whole island trip. These rays were like puppy dogs! Despite being wild and having barbs, they are so used to people they had no problem swimming right up to us. They brushed up against our legs as they swam by; the weirdest, smoothest sensation that I can only equate to how it feels when you jump in a pool after shaving your legs (high school swimmer in the house lol). The first mate of our boat who also conveniently happened to be a stingray whisperer helped each of us safely hold one of the Southern Rays, except it wasn't as much of "holding" as putting our arms underneath because this particular one was about 2 ft wide. Stringrays are impressive creatures which feel a lot like wet portabello mushrooms, and the females of this species can grow up to 4 ft wide!
We also had the chance to feed these adorable rays a closed fist-full of octopus tentacles. The stingrays came up and we could literally feel them suck the food out of our hands. The smell of the grub only drew more rays towards us and they began to swim even closer, flapping against us and circling, begging like a dog for something else to eat. With snorkel gear we were able to get face-to-face with these guys and watch them as they smoothly glide through the water using their fins almost like a bird uses it's wings.
Explore a Barrier Reef
Our next stop on our excursion was snorkeling in a live and active reef system. Cayman has the second largest barrier reef in the world after Australia, making it a top destination for divers and avid snorkelers. Our 1 1/2 hour snorkel allowed us to see brain coral, parrotfish and lots of other sea life, plus the water was so much clearer than the last time I snorkeled in Key Largo, Florida. We were already in the water when tropical storm Alberto hit us with a thunderstorm closer to shore. It's crazy hearing thunder as your snorkeling underwater and the fish don't even react to it...just business as usual for them!
We also had a taste of just how immense the ocean is. In the distance was a dive boat only a little bigger than ours that our captain pointed out to us. He explained that the front of the boat was sitting in water 5 ft deep while the back of the boat was in water that was 30,000 ft deep as the wall of the reef drops off. Pretty mind blowing to realize just how unexplored the ocean really is.
Make Friends with a Sea Star
Starfish Point was the last stop on our trip. A shallow area near the shore, this point is filled with Red Cushion Sea Stars that you can pick up and hold in the water. Just make sure you don't actually call them Starfish or my friend Sarah, a marine biologist, will hunt you down and correct you. "Sea Stars aren't fish!" she would say :) But they are fun to hold! They actually suction onto you hands making it difficult to take them off. It's like they actually want to be your friend!
So lesson learned. Touristy activities aren't always bad. Sometimes they're amazing and are packed with people every day for a reason. If you're headed to Grand Cayman and the Cayman Islands, make sure you get on a boat and see Stingray City with snorkeling and Starfish Point as an added bonus!