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Girl snorkeling in Stingray City, Grand Cayman Islands, Grand Cayman

Close Encounters in the Caymans

Article by Bob Payne 07.14.2016

For visitors to the Caribbean, one of the strangest possible adventures is in the Cayman Islands, at a place known as Stingray City. Here, conditioned by decades of being hand-fed by divers, snorkelers and waders, graceful and affectionate Southern stingrays will let you rub their bellies, hold them in your arms and even give them a smooch.

Aerial view of Stringray City in Grand Cayman with yachts

A view of Stingray City from the sky

The experience, which requires no more skill than an ability to shuffle along in waist-deep, crystal-clear water above a white-sand bottom, is one of the Caymans’ most popular attractions, annually drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors, including some who, like me, have come away with a souvenir known as a “stingray hickey.”

My first visit, I was doing what any tourist might do, which was to hold a clump of chopped squid in my hand while I stroked the velvety white underbelly of a stingray, when I was whapped on my thigh by what felt like a high-powered vacuum cleaner. Even though I jumped practically into the arms of an 8-year-old girl standing nearby, I knew almost right away what had happened.

As our guide told us as part of the briefing, rays can’t see what they are eating, the result of their eyes being on top of their body and their mouth on the bottom. So if they smell squid you happen to be holding, they might accidentally clamp onto your body with a set of bonelike mouth plates that can’t do much damage but will leave a welt. In my case, the redness lasted for more than a week, which was great, because even after I returned home there was still time, on the occasion that I wore short pants, to say, “Oh that? A stingray hickey.”