Caribbean islands and the Hoover of the Sea

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Some things, you only want to do once. Having my hand sucked into the mouth of a killer doesn’t have to happen twice.

While aboard a cruise ship in the Caribbean, we stopped at Grand CaymanIsland. The island’s highlight is hand feeding the stingray. That’s right, by hand. Stingrays are closely related to sharks, which doesn’t make them sound like a house pet. Steve Irwin, better known as the “Crocodile Hunter” made child’s play of handling crocodile, but died from a stingray’s barb.

And despite this, stingrays are the focus of Grand Cayman’s tourist industry. The local beer is even named after them. Over 100,000 people each year swim in open water with them, feed them and, according to reports, don’t die. There is a special sandbar on the northwest corner of Grand Cayman’s North Sound. The shallow water, barely 4 feet deep, is crystal clear with white sand that easily show off the dark body of a ray. The sandbar, so the story goes, is where fishermen used to dock to clean their catch. They tossed the heads, fins and bones overboard, and the rays got a free supper. In time, they came to depend on it. Over the years, a tourist trade rose up to feed the rays. For a price.

The tour boats keep “feed” buckets of cut up squid and fish parts. Not very appetizing to look at, but we were told the rays love them. Our instructions were simple enough. Get in the water, grab a squid part from the bucket and hold your hand under the water. The ray would swim over your hand and you just let go of the bait. Simple, right?

“Oh, and don’t get excited and jump around. You don’t want to scare them.”

Right. I might scare them.

I got in the water, but decided to hold back from the group to watch for awhile. Rays are a prehistoric, JurassicPark looking fish and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to rush into anything. Within minutes, though, two small rays came toward me. They were about the size of a large dinner plate. If there had been more rays, or if they had been larger, I might have perfected the ability to walk on water. Instead, I stood still and tried not to panic as they came toward me. But it was anticlimactic when one, then the other, rubbed up against my leg like an aquatic house cat. After a few passes, I petted it. It felt like a sandy, wet mushroom.

OK, maybe I could handle the little ones.

So I waded over to the floating bucket of chum and dipped my hand in. I walked back to where the baby rays had been and held the squid part under water. But the babies had moved on. Immediately a huge ray came my way. I didn’t run away, but I did tense up. When the ray glided my way I unconsciously held the squid in a death grip.

I forgot to let go.

Before I could react, before I could even think about reacting, my entire hand had been sucked into its mouth with the force of roughly 37 Hoover vacuum cleaners. I couldn’t have removed my hand faster if it had been a hot stove. I think I also wet myself, which fortunately went unnoticed in the chest high water.

And then I made my second mistake. I wiped my icky, squid-holding hand onto my swimsuit. To be fair, we had been warned not to do this. Rays feed by sense of smell, not sight. I had just doused myself in ode de chum. Suddenly the rays were swarming over me. The only composure I can claim is that I didn’t scream like a little girl. Well, not much.

The rest of the tour group thought this great fun. Finally one of the guides took pity on me and threw some squid into the water several yards away to attract them while I swam for the boat.

Since everyone was having such a good time and clearly nothing bad was happening, I lost most of my fear. I fed a few more rays, this time remembering to let go of the squid just as the ray went over my hand. I actually have a photo of me holding a smaller ray in my arms. I have it hanging in my bedroom to remind me when I’m scrubbing toilets and searching for lost socks, that I do daring things sometimes.

I just don’t always do them twice.

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Beth

I'm a professional vagabond. I quit my cubical job in January 2014. Since then, I've hiked the Appalachian Trail, The Camino, and taught English in Vietnam, Turkey, Russia, Spain, Mexico and Peru. I'm exploring the world and you can come too!

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