Travel tales

Swimming with stingrays in the Cayman Islands

Swimming with stingrays in the Cayman Islands

The turquoise waters off the coast of the Cayman Islands are so clear you can see the sand on the sea bed below. But that’s not all you might see beneath you. As our boat pulled up onto a shallow sandbank, dark shapes started appearing below us in the water, gliding along the sea bed and circling around us. Our boat trip had promised we would be able to see stingrays out here and they weren’t wrong – you could see over 30 of them before we’d even stopped the boat. Swimming with stingrays is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the Cayman Islands and ‘Stingray City’ is the place to do it. I’m not exactly a natural underwater, but couldn’t miss this opportunity to get up close to these graceful creatures.

Stingray City boat trip, Grand Cayman

Another boat arrives at Stingray City

Stingray City is an area of shallow sandbars about half an hour’s boat ride off the coast of Grand Cayman – just enough time for a rum punch to steady my nerves. The story goes that fishermen started stopping off in the calm waters here to clean their catch on their way back home, throwing their leftover bits of fish overboard. The stingrays soon realised this was the place to come for an easy feast and started turning up whenever they heard the noise of a boat engine. And after the fishermen came the tourist boats who now bring boatloads of divers and snorkellers out here to swim with and feed the stingrays.

Stingrays in the Caribbean

Stingrays in formation

Now everyone knows what happened to Steve Irwin, killed when a stingray barb pierced his chest, but how dangerous are stingrays? Well not very apparently. The accident was a one-in-a-million chance and generally they are gentle and placid. Which is just what you want to hear before you get surrounded by them. We were given snorkelling gear and swam out into the chest-high clear waters, and I was immediately face-to-face with my first stingray. When you’re underwater you can see how graceful they are, with their wing-like fins pulsing and propelling them through the water. I was also surprised by how big they were, some can be a couple of metres wide. As one swam by I reached out my hand to touch it. The grey skin on top was rough like sandpaper, but the white underbelly was as smooth as velvet.

Stingrays in the waters of the Cayman Islands

Swimming with the stingrays

The stingrays here are definitely not shy. They’re so used to being around people and fed by them that they’ll happily rub up against you, float around you and even over you – sliding up your back as you bend over snorkelling so it looks like you’re wearing a stingray cape. They’re sniffing you out so see if they can find any trace of their favourite food – squid. Our guide handed out pieces of squid to feed them with and I was suddenly surrounded. Their mouths are underneath in the middle of their underbelly and if you hold out the squid they’ll glide over you and suck it right out of your hand. It feels a bit like a vacuum cleaner on your skin, though watch out where they’re sucking as you can end up with a stingray love bite! And the love goes both ways – the grace and beauty of these stingrays is something you will never forget.

The details

There are lots of boat companies in Grand Cayman offering trips to Stingray City. Prices start around $45 for a three-hour trip, and vary depending on the size of boat. You’re best to avoid times when there are a lot of cruise ships in port though as Stingray City can get totally overwhelmed by tour groups.

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Swimming with stingrays in the Cayman Islands – On the Luce travel blog

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25 Comments

  • Reply
    Tracy Antonioli
    June 17, 2012 at 5:33 pm

    I visited Stingray city on my one day in port in Grand Cayman–there were five ships in port that day (five!) and despite my fears of thousands of tourists (like me) it really wasn’t that bad. However, we had really rough water so the boat guide didn’t hand out the snorkel equipment. It was still really cool though. I was surprised by how freaked out I was –I don’t usually freak out about anything. I guess I just really understand that, tourist attraction or not, these are live, wild animals. But they are really beautiful and graceful!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      June 17, 2012 at 6:00 pm

      I was a bit nervous too – the size of them was a bit of a shock and you can see how strong they are, but they were so gentle.

  • Reply
    marinachetner
    June 17, 2012 at 5:57 pm

    wow! the water is crystal clear – such beauty!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      June 17, 2012 at 5:59 pm

      It was amazing – you could see every ripple in the sand on the sea bed!

      • Reply
        marinachetner
        June 17, 2012 at 6:01 pm

        You are so brave to have had the experience! I need to overcome my fear and try this one day… until then, that water is just beautiful.

  • Reply
    2 Rivers Photos
    June 17, 2012 at 6:46 pm

    Great review Lucy… its still a bit confusing, when I got my scuba certification our number 1 concern was not encountering Stingrays close to the shore! Maybe because they were “smaller” and tended to hide in the sand… we were worried about stepping on them and getting a taste of their sting!!
    I wonder if they have been accustomed to human interaction only in Cayman Islands or that “region” then because it sounds that they know humans = good food 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      June 17, 2012 at 8:00 pm

      Yes apparently they’re not too keen on being stepped on, when the sea is rougher you have to be careful as you can’t see them too easily. But other than that they were happy around people, I guess it’s related to exposure though, they are so used to being fed now and associate people with that as you say.

  • Reply
    Anita Mac
    June 18, 2012 at 12:01 am

    I couldn’t agree more – they are so beautiful and graceful. I had the privilege of swimming with then in Antigua – and I would go again in a flash! Was never worried about getting stung, but they were so excited for dinner I thought I would be knocked over at one stage! Looks like you had a brilliant day out there!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      June 18, 2012 at 1:40 pm

      When you get the food out you do feel like you might be mobbed by stingrays! But no I never felt threatened by them at all, even when they were lots of them around.

  • Reply
    Karen Johnson
    June 19, 2012 at 2:09 am

    Love your story on the stingrays! Great photos of them!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      June 19, 2012 at 12:51 pm

      Thanks – it would’ve been great to have a good underwater camera but luckily the water was clear enough!

  • Reply
    bushbirdie
    June 19, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    We went diving in an area famous for the giant manta rays in Thailand, though they hadn’t been seen for weeks prior to our day out at sea… we were lucky enough to see one (well my boyfriend did – I had to surface early because my ear wouldn’t equalise) and it was ginormous and actually kind of scary. These stingrays look much more my cup of tea, and that water… wow. I want to dive in right now…

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      June 19, 2012 at 10:04 pm

      The manta rays don’t look quite as friendly and have read they can be about 6 metres wide – wouldn’t fancy being surrounded by a group of them, these were a lot more manageable!

  • Reply
    Rachael
    June 19, 2012 at 6:49 pm

    What an experience! Wow. I would love to do that.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      June 19, 2012 at 10:01 pm

      It’s well worth it – looks like there are a a few places around the Caribbean where you can swim with them.

  • Reply
    Gerard
    June 22, 2012 at 9:25 pm

    Very nice pictures! Thank you for sharing.

  • Reply
    Arindam
    June 29, 2012 at 12:26 pm

    Great post. Liked your pictures a lot. It’s really wonderful, how stingrays like to have people around them. 🙂

  • Reply
    Jennifer Avventura
    July 12, 2012 at 3:10 pm

    Great post on Stingray City. I used to live in Cayman and every summer a group of us would head out to Stingray City, such a wonderful calm, beautiful spot … thanks for the memories. 🙂

  • Reply
    tulsatrot
    May 31, 2015 at 3:44 pm

    I currently live here in the Cayman Islands and with some basic calculations some fellow teachers and myself guesstimated that each stingray roughly makes $200,000 a year for the Cayman Islands. Enjoy your remaining travels.

  • Reply
    Iloenchen
    August 17, 2016 at 7:03 pm

    I love this! I’ve added the experience to my own bucket list, I hope you don’t mind. I enjoy snorkelling and sea creatures are awesome so this is something I definitely want to experience one day!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      August 19, 2016 at 6:48 pm

      It was a really unique experience, they’re so graceful! Hope you get to cross it off the bucket list sometime soon.

  • Reply
    Kelly Welter
    March 6, 2017 at 7:10 pm

    Does being in a small tour group make a big difference to the quality of experience at Stingray City? I’m about to book a tour but I’m not sure if I should pay premium price when other companies charge less (but take more people)?

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 6, 2017 at 9:44 pm

      Hi, I would think a smaller group would be better, but you could still get multiple boats arriving at once so there would still be crowds. Though it might be worth the extra for a less-cramped boat!

    • Reply
      Tulsatrot
      March 7, 2017 at 3:41 pm

      Hi Kelly, you will love the trip to Stingray City. I lived there for three years and for me, and this probably depends on each individual personality, I was fine on any of the boats. You will be visiting the same areas of North Sound and seeing the same stingrays. So for me, the quality doesn’t change depending on the boat that you take and especially if you are paying a premium. Lucy is correct, the boat will be less crowded, but you are not going to be hanging on for dear life on a cheaper boat. Hope this helps.

      John W.

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