A water-sports operator is trying to help save his business and preserve the North Sound sandbar by recruiting young ‘stingray guardians’ as part of an after-school snorkel club.
Jason Hatch, of the Cayman Snorkel Company, has seen his customer base disappear amid the total collapse of tourism due to the coronavirus pandemic.
And with the number of stingrays at the sandbar also diminishing dramatically, he is concerned for the future of the tourist attraction.
Hatch hopes to help solve two problems with one idea, by offering a nightly after-school club that takes schoolchildren to the site to feed the rays.
The business ran a successful camp for kids in the summer and he hopes he can get enough interest from parents and youngsters to sign up around 50 kids to join the club. That would allow a rotating roster of children to visit the site every day and help feed the rays and ensure they stay at the sandbar.
A recent three-day census count by the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation discovered a resident population of 47 rays at the site, compared with 118 found in a similar survey conducted the previous year.
The foundation attributed this to a large reduction in the ‘supplemental feeding’ from tour boats that visit the site.
Hatch said this was no surprise to him or to the other North Sound operators.
During his occasional post-lockdown charters he has observed the decline. The last time he was at the sandbar, he said, there were only seven rays.
“There are a lot of rays that we have names for that you see on every visit and we are not seeing them. There is one called ‘Frisbee’ that doesn’t have a tail, who everyone knows. We haven’t seen her since COVID.”
While this is not a health concern for the animals themselves (the foundation concluded they were likely foraging for food in other areas), it does create concerns for the tourist attraction.
North Sound operators are already struggling to keep their businesses afloat. Now many are wondering if there will be a site to return to once the tourists come back.
“The real worrying thing is the attraction itself. Stingray City is the islands’ most popular tourist attraction and we don’t know what that will look like in the future, depending on how long the borders remain closed.”
He said he was hopeful that the rays would return when the tourists do, but nothing is guaranteed.
“It took 40 years to build up the site in the first place,” he warned.
In the meantime, Hatch said, he is doing what he can to make a difference.
The after-school club starts in the next school term in January.
Youngsters will be taught about the biology of the rays, as well as proper handling of the animals, and excursions will involve additional activities, including snorkelling, fishing and tubing. Older children will be trained as deck hands as part of the club, which costs $50 for a single charter and $90 for two trips a week.
For more information, email [email protected].
- This article has been amended to correct the spelling of Mr. Hatch’s name