We’re near Grand Cayman, it’s partly cloudy but warm, with gentle swells in the crystal clear Caribbean. Unlike my previous foray into the land of “Papa” Hemmingway’s spirit, the following day I had visions of the late naturalist and all-around “good bloke,” Steve Irwin in mind. Known for his selfless attitude about animals, endangered and otherwise, Irwin suffered a bizarre death having been stabbed in the heart by a stingray off the coast of Australia. He was just 44 when he left this world in 2006. The loss was felt worldwide.
We convinced ourselves that the rays in the Caribbean, and more specifically those in Stingray City, a sandbar about 30 minutes from the capital, George Town, were of a much more benign nature. Australia, as everyone on Earth knows, plays host to more deadly creatures than all the other continents combined. So, we assumed their stingrays were most likely a lethal breed, too. That conviction (and the promise of all the post-stingray margaritas we could consume) propelled my bride and me into the water in fearless fashion. By the by, ignore the seemingly happy face on the critter pictured here. He’s just trying to sucker you in.
Full disclosure: the “gentle” swells were less gentle than anticipated. This truth of this was underscored by a substantial mouthful of saltwater which I consumed about two seconds after I stepped off the ladder and into the sea. It was cold at first, too. Not damned cold, but close. Much to my surprise, I adapted to the temperature quickly, aided no doubt by the presence of dozens of dark, disk-shaped critters circling me like silent, aquatic vultures.
“They eat squid, mon,” said one of the helpful (and courageous) Jamaican crewmembers who leaped into the water ahead of us. “Spread your legs, mon. Give ’em room to cruise about.”
Right. I’m thinking they’ve got the whole freakin’ Caribbean in which to cruise about. Why would they need to… “Oh, holy [expletive deleted]!” Trust me when I say, having a stingray slither between your legs is a simultaneously exhilarating and frightening experience. I tried to focus on the promised margaritas.
Looking for all the world like fifty pounds of fresh liver, this creature from the deep glides right up into our collective wheelhouse where he/she (who the hell can tell?) surfaces mere inches from our noses. I’m suddenly very glad I’m in the water and not on land where someone might inspect the front of my shorts.
The happy crewmember then maneuvers his way over to us with a bucket of wet, pink, fully tentacled stingray food and suggests we feed the beast. “Fold your thumb inside your fingers, mon,” he says. “Don’t let de ray suck your thumb into his mouth. Very bad idea, mon.”
Gotcha. Let the ray suck the food outta my hand. I’m telling myself to be brave so my bride won’t get worried. Meanwhile, there’s a stingray rubbing himself on my inner thigh, a most unsettling sensation. I’m worried he’ll be disappointed when he discovers his buddy already snagged the pink, squiggly treat a couple feet above.
I’m also keenly aware that a young, female crewmember is taking photos of us while we dance our little jig with the ray. She’s laughing and offering stage directions while we do-si-do with a gang of aquatic killers. What great fun, I’m thinking, as the second ray makes his way back through my legs in search of anything which might be dangling about in the current. I cinch up my swim trunks as best I can.
Shortly thereafter, one of the intrepid crewmembers grabs the ray and lifts most of it out of the water so the whole world can see its cute little mouth smack in the middle of its stark, white underbelly. What we didn’t get to see was the critter’s stinger, a sharp appendage mounted beneath his tail and about six inches long. Naturally, I’m envisioning the collection of butcher knives mounted on the wall in our kitchen.
Shortly thereafter, that same crewmember held up the creature’s posterior, fully exposing its deadly stinger for all to see. He then licked it. I swear to God, he licked it; right there in front of me. “It’s no big deal, mon,” he said. “He loves me.”
I suspect Steve Irwin had much better things to do than look down on us. I certainly hope so.
But the strangest thing of all is this: I can’t wait to go back.
Yeah, okay. I’m crazy.
The margaritas, by the way, were yummy.