I am so nervous! I know hundreds of people swim with stingrays every day with no ill effects. However, all I can think of is how the great animal lover, the Crocodile Hunter, died from the sting of a ray. What if the rays can smell my fear, like a dog? What if they exception to my sunscreen? My deodorant?
I admitted my fear to my loving husband and he said with his tongue firmly lodged in his cheek, “Maybe I should take the hedgehogs instead.”
For those who don’t know the hedgehogs, Edge and Og, they are our palm-size mascots that have travelled with us for over twenty years. Although small, they are fearless.
I woke up this morning dreaming of a movie’s death scene. Mine. I am lying on the beach, wracked with pain having been stung in the heart by a renegade stingray. Jim has his arms wrapped around me and I, suddenly, look thirty years younger (Isn’t that always the way with movie death scenes?) The camera closes in on my face as I wheeze out, “Never forget, I love y….” One last shudder and I’m gone. Jim buries his head in my chest in grief. He’s sorry for that hedgehog comment now!
Still not deterred by vicious death threats, scary nightmares, nor even callous husbands, I shall set forth with Jim on our adventure.
(Several hours later)
I am on board the local vessel that brought us to this Stingray City area. I say area because there isn’t any land in sight except a dull green ribbon of the Cayman Islands. (So much for my movie death scene on a beach dream.) There are at least six vessels anchored here, with their butts forming a circle. The water is a beautiful pearl turquoise, getting paler as we near the sandbar. We can now see hundreds of tourist heads bobbing in the water. Then we await our turn to back into the circle.
I am still hesitating. Finding excuses like putting on extra sunscreen, or being polite and letting other people go ahead. Jim was one of the first to climb off the aft and he’s now chest deep in azure water. There are dark bathmat sized diamond shapes winging along under the surface. People are crying out in joy and astonishment. Those bathmats are stingrays! I knew these were wild stingrays but I really didn’t expect them to be this free. There is nothing holding them here, only the promise of a free meal. Also nothing to stop that renegade stingray I dreamt about.
I have no trouble entering the water but as soon as I set foot on the sand, I know there is going to be trouble. The guide told us that we should shuffle along the bottom with our feet. Definitely do not jump or leap about. However, I am short and rather… um.. buoyant. The waves pick me up off my feet and I have no choice but to touch down repeatedly. Isn’t that like jumping?
Oh my gosh! There, in the water, is our guide with this huge behemoth stingray draped over his arms and sliding up all the way to his chin! As if greeting a long lost lover, he lifts the stingray’s “chin” and gives it a big kiss on its white underside.
“This is a female,” he explains. “You can tell because the female is softer. You gentlemen will know what I mean.” There are nervous laughs from those around. Especially as now the bathmats are starting to circle. They know their fresh meat is arriving. I just hope they know the fresh meat is the squid the assistant was cutting up, not me! Now the guide is explaining safety precautions and I listen closely. “This,” he says, circling around the animal and actually grabbing the tail, “is the dangerous end.” He points to the lethal stinger. “If the tail brushes against you, it will not sting. Only this part will actually sting. And don’t touch the spine. There are barbs along the backbone. That is the only part of the stingray that is actually bone. The rest is meat. In fact, some of the scallops that are served in the Caribbean are actually stingray meat. Not here,” he hastens to explain as people are already starting to identify with this smooth, friendly creature in front of us, “here there is a hefty fine. Who wants to touch?”
There is a general gasp and a titter of nervous laughter. Some people actually step backwards.
But not Jim! Jim is in there like a dirty shirt. With a grin spreading from ear to ear, he raises his hand and surges forward. The guide tells him to raise his hands apart under the surface of the water and, suddenly, Jim has the fluttering weight of a huge stingray on his arms and chest. A beatific smile of awe replaces the eager grin and it looks like he’s in love. In fact, he too kisses the ray!
Now other people are clambering to touch this lady fish and Jim backs up respectfully. I shuffle over to him and hang on. He is much taller than I and can be my anchor when those big waves arrive. Suddenly, something rubs along my left calf. There are no tourists over there. It’s a ray! I can’t help but squeak and startle but even as I do, my mind is telling me how wonderful that touch felt. It was smooth and silky, light as a feather, and the same temperature as the water.
Oh, look at this, Jim has another ray in his arms and since I’m hanging on to him, I decide to touch the outer flipper as well.
Amazing! It really is smooth! The upper-side, the dark side, has just a hint of rasp to it, like raw silk. I had been expecting sandpaper like the skin of the ray’s cousins the sharks. Surprisingly, the white underside is completely smooth. In fact, if you squeeze the flipper ever so gently, the texture is rather like tofu. Honest!
Now the guide is asking, “Who wants their picture taken kissing a ray? Which couple wants to be first? How about you?”
Naturally, they point at the one who has proven himself the most fearless, Jim, and by association, me.
Thus it was that I actually was part of the pair that posed, surrounded by stingrays, “kissing” and getting back rubs from the tame/wild rays.
I conquered my fears and no one was the wiser, not even the rays. Big-Black-and-Pushy even accepted a morsel of squid from my hand. It felt like a vacuum cleaner was sucking it up!
I am so glad I persevered and learned to love stingrays. They are awesome creatures.