How to Make the Most of Your Cayman Islands Stingrays Encounter

Swimming with stingrays in Grand Cayman is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

According to legend, around 100 years ago Grand Cayman fishermen got into the habit of using the calm waters of a North Sound sandbank just inside the reefs that surround their Caribbean island to clean their catch and tidy up their nets after a day on the water. The activity, and the free food, attracted nearby fish, particularly the southern stingrays, a generally nocturnal species that usually spends daylight hours sleeping, burrowed in the sand.

As the stingrays began to associate human activity with food, the number of stingrays turning up every day increased. Humans, in turn, began to associate stingrays with a money-making opportunity and began bringing in visitors. By 1986 intentional feeding had become a daily occurrence and a tourist phenomenon was born.

Welcome to Stingray City, the most famous stingray encounter on the planet, drawing up to one million visitors every year to the Cayman Islands. There are other stingray encounter opportunities in the Caribbean, as well as Mexico, Australia and Polynesia, but a Grand Cayman stingray tour is unique for the numbers, the apparent friendliness of the animals and the fact you can stand waist-deep on the soft sand in the lagoon and they will actively come to you almost begging for attention (and a tasty morsel of squid).

They may not look like the cuddliest, friendliest fish in the ocean, but the great motivation of free food and a lack of fear of humans makes them so completely at ease they can be hand-fed, touched, caressed and even lifted in the water to pose for photographs with delighted tourists.

There are many Grand Cayman boat charters offering trips to Stingray City in craft ranging from glass-bottom boats to catamarans to large cruisers. Most take you directly to the sandbar about 25 minutes offshore, where you can watch the stingrays in the crystal clear water from the comfort of the boat, or snorkel in the deeper 10-foot parts of the sandbank or just wade in the shallow, three-foot central area, surrounded by graceful stingrays vying for attention and food.

To get the most out of your stingray encounter, here are three top tips to remember:

Go early morning or late afternoon to avoid the crowds of cruise ship visitors. Stingray City can get extremely busy in the middle of the day when cruise ships are in port, as this attraction is heavily promoted by the cruise lines, guaranteeing crowds of tour boats and visitors, making for a much less enjoyable experience.

Don’t be afraid, but act calm and be cautious. Even though the larger (female) southern stingrays are more than six feet across, they are friendly, non-aggressive, and very relaxed around humans. Just be wary of accidentally stepping on one or grabbing its tail, where its barb can cause injury, potentially serious. Despite its intimidating span, the southern stingray is a lot smaller than the giant ray that caused the death of Australian Steve Irwin, the “Crocodile Hunter”,  in a tragic and bizarre accident during an encounter off the Great Barrier Reef. A good safety tip is to shuffle your feet as you walk through the sand to prevent stepping on a resting stingray and getting injured.

Visit stingrays in their natural habitat for a more satisfying experience. Stingrays can be visited in many areas of the Cayman Islands, where snorkelers and scuba divers can enjoy seeing them in their natural habitat without the crowds and the distractions. Feeding sites like Stingray City do not show natural stingray behavior. In order to enjoy a more natural swim with stingrays in Grand Cayman, you can find a tour operator offering snorkeling tours of areas that stingrays frequent, in the wild, away from tour groups and unnatural feeding

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