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Caribbean: Catching Rays in Grand Cayman

"So you're going to swim with the stingrays, are you?" asked the girl who was organizing our family's airline tickets to the Cayman Islands. "I did that last year and one of them bit me." I was taken aback. I knew that the southern stingrays off Grand Cayman, considered for years to be solitary, stinging creatures of the deep, were actually tame and friendly creatures, happy to be cossetted and patted by their human visitors. For decades, the fishermen cleaning their catch on the reef in the North Sound had noticed that the stingrays arrived daily to feast on their leftovers thrown overboard. Then about ten years ago divers came to feed them by hand, and "Stingray City," its citizens acrobatic yet friendly rays, was born. This stingray encounter soon became known as the "world's best 12-foot dive."

Now, the mostly mothers and babies had started to congregate just east of Stingray City at the Sandbar, an even shallower spot about a half-hour cruise from the northern tip of the island. There, swimmers, non-swimmers and even kids as young as three could stand in the waist-deep water and play with the nursery of rubber puppies. Yes, there was the barbed venomous tail to contend with but apparently they used it only in self defence or when stepped on. I was indeed taking my two youngest teenagers, 13-year-old Natalie and 15-year-old Dustin to test these very waters. A bite from a stingray? I didn't think these water gliders had teeth.

"Oh, they say it's very rare," she explained. "And it was my own fault. I'm not that big and I was trying to hold up a huge stingray with wings that were about five feet across. I just couldn't do it." I pictured this poor girl trying to raise a stingray above her head as if she were an Olympic weightlifter holding up barbells. But she had been standing in the waist-deep water at the Sandbar, trying to hold a flapping stingray up to the surface as if it was a toddler learning to swim. This could be exciting. "Forget it, I'm not swimming with them," announced Natalie, who shied away from a rock bass touching her toe. I hoped that once there, she would change her mind.

Since its very beginnings, the Cayman Islands has built a tourist industry up around its natural sea assets. Grand Cayman, just 189 miles northwest of Jamaica, is actually the top of a sunken mountain. Even in 1503, when Columbus first sighted two of the islands through his telescope, it was the plentiful supply of sea turtles that excited him, so much so that he named the islands Las Tortugas. (Later, the name was changed to Las Caimanas, "those who hunt for crocodiles.") With turtle meat providing such protein-rich supplement for the scurvy-afflicted men sailing the Caribbean, boats regularly stopped by to hunt turtle meat.Today, the Grand Cayman Turtle Farm raises thousands of green sea turtles in floating tanks both for consumption and release into the water when they are a year old. Because they are marked with a white dot from their own undershell which grows with them, you can tell roughly whether a turtle is young or ancient. Ten years ago, underwater marine parks were established to protect the turtles, coral reefs and other sea life. Anyone disturbing the reef or its creatures could face a $5000 fine and a year in jail.

Today, blessed with walls of natural coral, calm azure waters and reefs teeming with a vast assortment of fish, the kind your kids dream of for their aquariums, plus underwater visibility of up to 150 feet, this sea world brings in divers from all over the world, financiers who do business at any of the 570 banks, and more recently, families who appreciate the quiet, old-fashioned atmosphere (there's still an 11 p.m. curfew in effect). If your family is looking for a holiday that's more theme park than nature park, then this is not the place for you. But if your kids would enjoy swimming through schools of tropical fish, burying each other's torsos on a soft, sandy beach that's praised annually as one of the best in the Caribbean and squinting eye to eye with a sea turtle who's lumbered up onto the beach for a dog food breakfast, then consider these island a possibility.

To learn a little more of the island's history, we began our stay by peeping into the, the Cayman Islands National Museum in Georgetown, the island's capital. Made of wattle and daub, the island version of the Canadian log cabin, the painted house was filled mostly with Mr. Ira Thompson's "unusual odds and ends." Unusual indeed were the "wompers," cowhide protection for the feet laced with thatch rope. The kids spent more time peering in at the three-dimensional panaorama of the undersea mountains and canyons around the islands and watching the videos of tourists cavorting with the stingrays. It seemed as if that stingray theme was following us everywhere: I even tried the local Stingray Beer with my fried conch fritters for lunch at the Island Taste, a thatched roofed tree house that advised "singing allowed only at other guests' tables."

Just across the street was the Atlantis submarine and we boarded for a pressurized descent down the wall we'd just been examining at the museum. Because the current was so strong, we didn't see as much as on a calm day but we did see parrot fish, angel fish and other fish darting in and out of the coral. The highlight was seeing a green sea turtle swimming alongside the boat taking us out to the sub. Dustin and I could hardly wait to don masks, snorkels and fins and see what else was there. In the dimming light of late afternoon, we drove up tothe north end of the island where a marine zone off Seven Mile Beach ensured protected sea life.

Even a metre offshore, the area was indeed full of fish. "Aah, they're surrounding me in a circle," cringed Natalie, waving her hands above her in the air. Yellow tail snappers, striped angel fish and comincal needle nose fish kissing one another darted through and around her legs. "They won't hurt you, Natalie," said Dustin. "They won't even let you touch them."

We each took a hand and pulled her out to the small reef covered with waving fan coral. When we drifted over a sea urchin, its spines sticking up like a porcupine about to shoor, Natalie screamed and got a mouthful of salt water in her snorkel. Then she started to laugh, the bubbles rising up the tube. Dustin swam off in disgust to see if he could find a blowfish or a turtle. He came back exhilarated. "I can swim as fast as a fish. I tried to keep up with one and I could."

Back on shore, a woman wrapped in a purple robe enquired, "Have you swum with the stingrays yet?" "No," answered Natalie emphatically, removing her mask. "You have to," she countered. "I'm afraid of water and I did it. You just have to stand there and they swim all around you." We watched as the sun set. The turqoise waters turned a deep purple while the sky became pink and orange. And this changing picture show didn't cost us a dime.

If all of this paradise becomes too much, you can always take a break in Hell, a town on the north end of the island with its own post office. Consisting of bizarre outcroppings of limestone jagged, the locale was named by a local official who declared, "This place looks like Hell!" We talked with a local woman selling T-shirts bragging "I've been to Hell and back" and bought a pop to drink under a carboard cutout of the devil. "My it's hot today," she offered, fanning herself and I countered, "I thought it was always hot in Hell." I bet she's heard that a hundred times but she laughed anyway.

Grand Cayman was the kind of place where people still waved and smiled as you drove by and where you could leave a hat in a shop and go back two days later to retrieve it. Compared to other islands, it seemed underdeveloped, without the strips of high rise hotels or casinos or even dreadlocks on its citizens. Still a British Crown Colony, the islands voted to remain with Britain when Jamaica declared its independence in 1962. We watched as a Rastafarian was given two choices at the airport-either cut his hair or board the next plane home.

Of course, this serenity and safety didn't come cheap, especially since the Canadian dollar only gave us about 60 cents Cayman. But by staying in a condominium where we could cook some of our meals, taking advantages of breakfast buffets and relying on Mother Nature for our entertainment, we managed our money and still had enough to buy a post card from Hell.

But time was passing, the day was bright and breezy, and we had to drive to the dock where "the Happy Hooker," was waiting to take us out to the stingrays. We met our fellow passengers from England, Hawaii and California, and two photographers who were going to take photos and a video, and boarded the large catamaram-but not before Jeanette gave us the do's and don'ts. Using a cuddly-looking plush toy, she demonstrated how to handle a ray. "They have very powerful suction and they may latch on to your arm," she ecplained as she held the fake fish against her skin. So that was the explanation of the bite we'd heard about. "But don't worry. When they smell that you're not food, they'll eventually let go." She popped it off. Natalie looked at me as if to say, "Not on my arm." Jeanette showed us how their eyes on the top of their heads couldn't see what their zipper-like mouths on the bottom were doing, and sent us off with some final words of advice. "They really are like puppy dogs. The worst thing you can do is start jumping around. If you get all excited, then they'll get excited. Just walk around normally. There are about 80 stingrays out there today so have a great time."

After half an hour of bumping along the ocean, through water that changed from turqoise to deep blue and back again, we reached the Sandbar and dropped anchor. Sure enough, within seconds, dusky grey shadows were moving underwater towards the boat. With a splash, Dustin was off the boat and heading for the nearby waist-deep water. And then, much to my surprise, so was Natalie. "Give her a hug," I heard the boat man instruct Dustin as he placed a large flapping ray into his arms. "She's a girl. She'll like it man. Nuzzle her into your chest." Thankfully, this ray was missing her sting, her tail no doubt bitten by the ray's only predator, the shark. But the suggestion was enough to get me into the water. If my son was going to nuzzle a stingray, I wanted to be close by tail or no tail. "Keep her air holes wet," he continued. "There, now she'll lie right back and relax." Her white underside felt like velvet, her top was like a mouse pad, but as people patted her, was the smile on her underbelly actually smiling?

When chunks of fresh squid were handed out, the calmness in the water disappeared and the waters started churning with stingrays lunging for food in twos and threes, probably mother and kid teams. One girl holding up some food started shrieking, "Get them away from me. They're all around my legs." Natalie and I clutched on to each other as everyone laughed. As the stingrays were fed, they settled down, the giant wings brushing slowly brushing against our legs and tummies. It was true that they seemed to be taking special care to swing their tails away from any human skin.

After 20 minutes of play, we boarded the boat for a deeper coral garden, where nurse sharks, moray eels and even turtles were swimming alongside. Yes there were pairs of rays too, about five foot long, but by this time we weren't afraid.





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