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Cuddling a Stingray!

The water beneath our boat was getting shallow. I could see the white sandy sea bottom through the swimming-pool-blue water. We were arriving in Stingray City, a sandbar located in Grand Cayman’s North Sound, famous for its friendly stingrays.

Our boat joined a huge semicircle of tourist-filled boats. Our guides invited us to take off our shoes, because they could hurt the stingrays, and climb into the water. I reluctantly slid off the water shoes that I’d hoped would provide some limited protection from having my foot impaled on a stingray’s stinger, and carefully climbed down the boat’s ladder and into the warm Caribbean water.

Soon I stood with my mother, my ten year old brother, and the throngs of tourists in the calm, chest-high water. I looked for stingrays, but didn’t see any. I pulled my snorkel mask over my face and lowered my head into the water. A large stingray eerily approached me like a huge, gray, underwater bird in flight. I stood up and apprehensively let him rub against me.
Unlike most wild stingrays, who avoid contact with people, these stingrays, through years of experience with tourists, seek out the humans who enter the water with them and allow people to touch, cuddle and feed them.
One of our guides showed us how to hand feed a stingray. I reached into a floating bucket of squishy squid pieces and positioned the seafood in my hand so that my fingers were out of the way of the dangling morsel. Nervously, I slid my hand into the water near the mouth of a large stingray. Stingrays don’t have sharp teeth, but the Southern Stingray (Dasyatis americana), that I was about to feed, had two powerful plates in its mouth that press together to crush food. As my hand approached the stingray’s mouth, I felt a strong sucking sensation followed by a dull pinch. I removed my empty hand from the water and found a small red mark on one of my fingers. I later learned that I had received what is sometimes referred to as a “stingray hickey." I prefer to call it a “stingray kiss."

Nearby, a guide who was “cuddling” a stingray offered to let me try. I slid my arms into the water next to his and he slowly moved away. I held the stingray in my arms. She flapped her large velvety fins. I moved my arms lower into the water and the stingray settled, calmly resting on my forearms. I felt her rubbery skin against mine. For a few minutes I stood there, marveling at the fact that I was holding a stingray in my arms. She seemed so relaxed and comfortable. I relaxed too. I felt very different than I had just minutes before when I’d climbed into the water hoping that I wouldn’t get stung.
With the guide's help, my mom and my little brother also took a turns cuddling a stingray.
The forty minutes that I spent that day with the beautiful, docile creatures forever changed the way I think about stingrays. Now, next time I’m in the water and see a stingray, rather than worry about getting stung, I will calmly admire her… from a nice, safe distance.

I did this in 2007 off the coast of Grand Cayman, Grand Cayman Islands.

Jen (California, USA)