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Frolicking with Cayman Stingrays Is Dive 'High'

October 28, 1990|JOHN HENDERSON | Henderson is a sportswriter for the Denver Post

GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands — Is it possible for man to feel any more vulnerable than he does under the ocean?

Probably not. So try to picture how I felt on my knees on the ocean floor, staring at three 250-pound stingrays bearing down on me like a squadron of low-flying kamikaze pilots.

There I was, armed with nothing more than a handful of dead squid.

There aren't many places on earth where you can wake up, look out at a breathtaking sunrise and say, while stretching out on the veranda, "I think I'll go play with some stingrays today."

But one of those places is in the Cayman Islands.

And what appears to be an underwater death wish out of a James Bond movie turns into one of the most exhilarating experiences in all of scuba diving. Kneeling in the sand, my legs, shoulders and head were wrapped in the giant wings of these stingrays while feeding them squid as if they were 250-pound puppies.

This wasn't a marine park. It wasn't some Caribbean version of Sea World. It was merely a former dumping place for Cayman fishermen that has turned into one of the few places in the world where wild southern stingrays live off hand-feedings from man.

The Cayman Islands, situated about 250 miles south of Cuba, have long been to scuba diving what Vail is to skiing. But until about three years ago, the majestic beauty of stingrays could only be appreciated by a lucky dive down deep.

Now you can see stingrays up close and personal.

I was with Desert Divers, the Las Vegas dive shop that has made biannual trips to this diving mecca for 20 years. For the last three years, feeding stingrays in two main areas--the Sandbar and Stingray City--has been a high priority for visiting divers.

Grand Cayman, the country's main island, is shaped like an open-mouthed snake head. The two feed sites are in the North Sound, or the equivalent of the snake's mouth. The north end of the island features a huge wall that reaches depths of 15,000 feet, but farther south the sound has water as shallow as 15 feet.

This is where the stingrays feed.

The 15-minute drive from the Grand Cayman airport to the capital city of George Town, where the dive centers are located, is generously described as simple. Low-lying swamplands are separated by narrow but paved streets with stoplights, well-marked English signs and hotel ads.

If you're looking for prototype Caribbean culture, with women carrying goods on their heads and men dancing in the streets, you won't find it here. The Cayman Island culture is unnumbered savings accounts, Buccaneer beer and Tortino's frozen pizza. The most notable landmark on Grand Cayman's unremarkable landscape is a turtle farm.

Just outside of George Town are rows and rows of modern, centrally located condominium complexes where many dive groups settle for the week. Dive boats pick up visitors from the beach behind their condos. Grocery stores are close by, stocked with everything from Wheaties to Oreos. The Cayman Islands, with little industry other than banking and diving, import nearly everything. Be prepared to pay $3.50 for a gallon of milk.

George Town itself seems almost like a tropical Zurich. Modern, glass-lined banks fill the city center as men in business suits walk past souvenir shops on their way to 9-to-5 jobs.

The roots of the remarkable stingray phenomenon began about three generations ago. Cayman fishermen would come to these shallow waters and dump fish entrails, heads and other garbage at the end of the day. Stingrays became accustomed to storming the area to feed on the remains. Like Pavlov's dog, they came flying through the water at the mere sound of a boat's engine.

Accompanying us on this trip was Guy Pelland, a local marine biologist and underwater photographer who has done everything from organizing stingray feeds to photographing killer whales in Argentina. According to Pelland, about five years ago local dive masters noticed the feeding frenzy that the fishermen caused every day.

The dive masters wondered what would happen if they sent divers down with their own fish. What happened was that the stingrays came, they saw and they devoured. Today, more than 30 dive boats feed the stingrays every week, with sometimes as many as 10 boats appearing in a day.

The generosity, of course, has made the stingrays more than a little dependent.

"Three generations of stingrays have been living on hand-feedings," Pelland said. "If we stopped feeding, a lot would perish. If we're not here for two or three days because of bad weather or something, they're practically jumping in the boat."

As our boat slowly came to a stop, giant gray stingrays, looking like floating manhole covers, converged around us. As we put our gear on, the stingrays waited. They reminded me of a bunch of hungry puppies waiting by their food dish.

In fact, I thought I saw one of them wagging its tail.

Pelland said to hold the squid in one hand and hide it behind our back or under our leg. Make them hunt for it.

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