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Swimming with Friendly Caribbean Sea Creatures

As soon as the boat had dropped anchor in the shallow turqoise waters, a dozen grey shadows slowly began to appear around the vessel. These creatures were the island’s famous Southern stingrays come for lunch at the Sandbar, a shallow area about a half hour ride from shore. The idea was that I and my two young teens could be waiters serving up morsels of squid, or at least spectators at the feast. Fourteen-year-old Dustin was over the deck in a flash while 13-year-old Natalie hung back on the yacht rails, her feet tucked up away from these “playful puppies”. “Come on,” he shouted to his sister as more shadows with long tails began to swirl about him. Then, she was off the boat too and I had to follow. After all, though these stingrays were supposed to be tame, there were about a hundred of them out here. They would not use their tail stingers unless we stepped on them by accident. But they had wicked suction cup gums and very poor eyesight. But then so would you if your eyes were on the top of your head.

As more boats arrived and more people jumped into the water with tasty menu items, the water churned with activity. The three of us clutched each other as large and small rays glided by, just touching our legs with a smooth velvety stroke. Dustin reached out to touch a wing. It felt like a mouse pad. But the soft white underbelly was as soft as puppy fur. “Here,” said our guide as he plopped a mid-size ray into my son’s arm. “Give her a hug. She’ll like it.” Indeed, the stingray seemed to hug him back as he cradled this triangular creature in his arms. But she was more interested in lunch and swam off to find someone brave enough to offer up squid and risk their fingers being kissed with a vaccuum-packed smooch.

It seems that at many natural water habitats around the world, ocean creatures are being solicited to swim with tourists. You can play with the dolphins in parks around the Florida Keys, Bermuda and Mexico, follow the salmon in B.C. and swim with belugas in Churchill, Manitoba. But the Cayman Islands were the first to offer this kind of natural experience with sea creatures. And it happened almost by accident about 15 years ago after local fishermen noticed that when they anchored to clean their catch, the stingrays would come to playfully catch the drippings. This spot became Stingray City, the best 12-foot-dive in the world. Just east of this area is the newly discovered Sandbar, where even kids can stand in the waist-deep water to revel in the experience of swimming amongst the rays. Although you’ll see children as young as three snorkelling in life jackets above the families of stingrays, I wouldn’t recommend it for kids under seven. It can get quite hectic out there as some people start flinging squid into the water. And some little ones might freak if a large stingray suddenly swooped around their shoulders or latched onto them in their quest for food.

You don’t have to go far offshore in the Caymans, though, to find abundant sea life. At certain spots along the beautiful Seven Mile Beach, kids only need to wade out a few feet to find coral reefs teeming with yellowtail snappers, striped angel fish and needle nose creatures shining translucently in the crystal clear water. “I can swim as fast as a fish,” Dustin announced as he came back to shore. “I tried to keep up with one and I could!”

Another fabulous creature experience for kids in the Caribbean is in Barbados—swimming with the sea turtles. These amazing swimmers, who travel hundreds of kilometres every few years to nest on the same beach, have also discovered a free lunch along the west side of the island. This year, the Tall Ships Company welcome kids and adults aboard their Tiami catamaran, to sail along with the wind, snorkel in deep waters, and then drop anchor near a beach populated with large hawksbill turtles. It’s an amazing experience to watch them swim underwater, their arms working like bird’s wings, or have a large speckled turtle come up for air and look you right in the eye. Some kids tried to ride the turtles as they dived down but the adults quickly discouraged this activity. Although these turtles can live hundreds of years, they need to be respected for generations to come.

NOTE: Visit a local bookstore and show the kids pictures of sea urchins and stinging coral before they take the plunge. As long as they don’t touch them, they’ll be fine. Pack waterproof shoes so they don’t cut bare feet while hunting for creatures in rock pools. And bring proper fitting masks, snorkels and flippers from home. Not all resorts carry kid sizes.

CAYMAN ISLANDS: For information on Stingray City and Sandbar, call Cayman Islands Tourism at 416-485-1550 or visit www.caymanislands.ky and www.divecayman.ky where you can watch a video of Stingray City. Sandbar trips from Red Sail Sports (800-255-6425) or Soto’s Cruises (345-945-4576) start at US $30.

BARBADOS: Contact the Barbados Tourism Authority at 416-214-9880 or visit www.barbados.org. The five-hour Tiami Catamaran Sailing Cruise includes refreshments, delicious hot lunch buffet, snorkelling gear and friendly guides. The kids loved it. Prices are $130.00 Bajan dollars; half-price for kids under 13. Call 246-430-0900 or visit http://www.tallshipscruises.com.





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