Before departing for a family vacation on the Cayman Islands a couple of months ago, the overwhelming recommendation we received was to visit magical, fascinating Stingray City. For the uninitiated, Stingray City is a tourist attraction located in an area just to the north of Grand Cayman.
Completely surrounded by open water, the natural and shallow sandbars and calm waters provided (for many years) a perfect area for fisherman to clean their catch before heading back to shore. The practice of throwing the fish guts overboard attracted stingrays and other fish that quickly associated fishing boats with food.
Then in 1951, Captain Marvin Ebanks began offering full-day educational boating trips to the Stingray City sandbar.
Every passenger stayed on the boat while he talked about the ecosystem of the area, catch fish and lobster for lunch onboard, and weave in stories from his merchant marine days. This was all well and good until the 1980s when divers realized that stingrays could be fed by hand without repercussion.
Credit: Kfulgham84 via Wikimedia Commons
What began as an educational opportunity to learn about stingrays in their natural habitat has now turned into an overtourism spectacle of approximately 2,500 people each and every day snorkeling, touching and feeding the stingrays themselves at the sandbar.
Credit: Jcparsaligan via Wikimedia Commons
With advertisements from the Cayman Island Department of Tourism that read “kissing a stingray gets you 7 years good luck”, it’s no wonder that education has been replaced with a 2-hr bucket list activity.
I was horrified by what we saw.
Due to a cancellation, our family had a private boat transfer to Stingray City where upon arrival, we saw no less than 10 other boats, each with their own large bag of squid at the ready so everyone could take a photo with a stingray. Some of the boats were party boats filled with 50-60 people who were stopping for the day at Grand Cayman as part of their cruise itinerary. Each party boat played loud music and offered drinks to each passenger (some passengers even took their drink with them into the waist-deep waters).
The combination of crowds and noise was undoubtedly stressful for the stingrays. I could see it in their haunting eyes. There have even been studies about stingrays and stress which discusses the physiological costs of this type of touch tourism on stingrays including higher rates of injuries and parasites and lower levels of antioxidant capacities.
This is a real impact!
When I asked our guides about the stress levels of the stingrays, I was told that they were “not caged, they could leave the area anytime they want”. But, how is that realistic when generations of stingrays have been conditioned or domesticated to get their food supply from the boaters? Just as you would not expect an indoor cat to understand how to survive outside in the wild, how would it be possible for these stingrays to survive off the sandbar?
When I asked if there had been any discussions about limiting the number of visitors each day (perhaps raising the price from $45 per person in the process) and focusing on education again, my guide answered that “there are too many people relying on this tour for their livelihood”.
This excuse is the same all over the world where money trumps conservation, soundbites trump strategic policies, and myopic winning trumps long-range health.
With all that, I cannot imagine that I was the only person negatively affected by my Stingray City experience. How about you? Have you visited Stingray City? What has been your experience with visiting other destinations offering wildlife interaction?
*Note: We were so focused on what was happening that we did not take any photographs, which is why all photos are provided through Wikimedia Commons. The cover image is credited to Grahampurse via Wikimedia Commons.