Stingrays are a major attraction in Cayman and over the years the people who regularly interact with the rays – the crews on the boats – have become skillful handlers of the animals.
They are the ray dancers; they know what to do to please the tourists.
The stingray experience shares some similarities with a dolphin attraction. People love dolphins, but you just don’t get the same thrill from simply watching swim around. People want to see them jump and leap out of the water.
‘I don’t think their body is designed to be lifted out the water,’ said Mike Nelson, the author of the book Swim with the Rays. ‘They are used to being in an even environment with water pressure all around them. When you lift them out of the water I don’t think their cartilage structure can handle that sort of pressure.’
Mr. Nelson is not the only person who is concerned for the rays.
Artist and businessman Guy Harvey has been conducting scientific surveys and population assessments of the Cayman stingrays and he has also expressed reservations about the way the rays are being handled.
‘You know it is one thing to swim with them, feed them and cradle them in the water, but physically lifting them out of the water is causing them distress. The biggest thing you are causing them is to suffocate effectively; they can’t breathe when they are up in the air.’
Mr. Nelson said, ‘It is generally the photographers who are encouraging this, some of them are prepared to abuse the rays for a photograph and unfortunately that is the business I am in, so in effect we are getting a bad name because of it.’
Recently enacted legislation that resulted in the creation of the Wildlife Interaction Zones actually contains a regulation that says no marine life may be taken out of the water.
According to Mark Orr, acting chief enforcement officer at Depart of Environment, this includes the stingrays and DEH will soon enforce the new regulations in the zones.
‘Hopefully, we will soon have a permanent officer for the Wildlife Interaction Zones. We already have a vessel bought specifically for that job and we are in the process of hiring an officer whose main responsibilities will be to patrol these areas, both the Sand Bar and Stingray City.’
In a short time Guy Harvey will begin a new population survey of the stingrays in Grand Cayman. The last census was performed in 2003 before Hurricane Ivan and 165 rays were tagged at the Stingray City Sand Bar.