This post could have been titled in many ways, such as “Don’t try this at home” or “How to train your pet Stingray” or “Taking selfies with stingrays”. They’re all good, descriptive titles.
Except, none of them truly communicates what it feels like when a school of stingrays, several larger than moi, decide that my purple water shorts need to be inspected from all angles. Way too many rays for a first encounter descended on me, wrapped themselves around me, and blew air on me. I nearly lost it. For a few moments, I found myself completely, absolutely enveloped in stingray. The world went dark, their huge wings blocking the sun, and I let out a holler! Maybe more than one—I couldn’t say.
Eric, one of the other BSA captains, had told me about a place where tame stingrays roamed. I put it near the top of our sightseeing list, right below Sally’s request to visit the swimming pigs. The weather had already gotten a bit volatile as Hurricane Dorian was approaching and we nearly left a day early. But then things cleared up for a bit and we decided to add one more day to our cruise.
At first, there were no rays. I snorkeled around but all I found were two rays resting and covered by sand. I swam back to the boat, opened a pack of frozen shrimp, and threw a handful in the water. Nothing. I swam away from the boat to explore the deeper water. When I looked back, I saw Steve and Ronnie surrounded by rays of all sizes. I swam back to photograph the action from a safe distance.
The rays, however, didn’t honor my caution… or my distance.
I’m not sure as to the exact nature of my fears. In the beginning, all I could think about were the serrated spines at the base of their tails. I also thought about Steve Irwin—but only for a minute. Mostly, I was afraid of the unknown. I wasn’t as scared as I would have been if a school of sharks had tried to cuddle with me but it was a close second. Tame stingrays just aren’t a thing.
I fought the onslaught of rays and as I had no food or anything else to hold their attention, the rays finally lost interest, slowly, one by one. I tried to compose myself while Steve, Ronnie, and Sally continued to crack up just a few feet away. Thanks guys, really funny.
Every once in a while one runs into, or rather over, a partially buried ray, barely noticeable on the seafloor, covered by sand and surrounded by seaweed and other visual noise. That’s not unheard of and likely quite common if one seeks out the right occations (snorkeling + reef). My previous experience with rays had been limited to just such occasional, somewhat distant sightings on or near a reef, and a frantic effort to get a halfway decent, long-distance shot of the disappearing creature.
In contrast, having a ray approach and start climbing up on me is unprecedented in my personal story. Having several rays approach and climb up on me is panic inducing and not for the faint of heart.
The rays appeared to be in a circular holding pattern, cruising by in regular intervals. Having them continually swim by so closely helped me get my nerves under control and point my camera in the right direction at the right time. As long as they kept a bit of distance I was okay and only occasionally had to fend one off with a push of my fin.
Steve and Ronnie decided it would be a hoot to throw shrimp at me and the rays came back in full force. I was the only one not laughing. This continued until I decided to stand up, out of the water. I still felt the need to shoo some overly friendly shadows away but somehow, breathing air freely instead of being submerged, helped.
I stopped trying to take pictures or shooing them away and instead concentrated on relaxing and letting things happen. With a little mental distance and enough time to contemplate this improbable encounter, feelings of humility and gratitude washed over me.
I don’t think these are the kind of rays that come just for the food. Long after we’d run out of our handful of frozen Florida Keys shrimp, the gentle (bony fish) kept swimming in large circles around us, often sideswiping us with their sizeable wings in the most gentle, friendly way imaginable.
It was as if they wanted to let me know that there was no danger, only curiosity and playfulness.
You could argue, of course, that they are wild animals and the only reason they would come back is in the hopes for more food. In my experience, animals aren’t that dumb. Once the food runs out they usually can’t be bothered to make another appearance, certainly not numerous ones.
Trying to adjust some more, I took my fins off and stood there, head out of the shallow water, and watched the rays swim past and sometimes between my feet on their big loop. Each successive swipe of the underside of their wings became more of a friendly hug and eventually I found myself relaxed and enjoying the encounters.
Did I mention how soft the white underside of a Southern stingray is? It’s so very smooth, not at all sticky or weird. The wings easily mold around one’s legs like a plush undulating blanket. It’s quite remarkable.
Also, the rays don’t mind if one strokes their skin. The top side is a bit less smooth and a bit more slippery than the underside. It felt amazing to hold out my hand and have the rays come up to me and give me a soft high five with undulating wings.
We’d been there for a while and I started to recognize some of the rays by color, shape, and size. There were Stumpy 1, a medium size ray, and Stumpy 2, a smaller ray, both with most of their tails missing. There was Big Kahuna with a wingspan of five or six feet (okay, minus 20%). There was Brownie, his dermis less dark and more chocolate colored; and then there was Big Momma—not as big as Big Kahuna—but big enough to give me a good fright when we first met. Now, I was looking for her each time the rays approached me on their circuit.
I did not want to leave. Ever. I looked towards the beach to see if there was room to build a cottage behind it. Sally had found a warning sign up on the beach so I went to check it out. The sign announced that the sharks, turtles, and rays were tame and that harassment would result in a $5,000 fine or prison. I’m not sure who was here to enforce this but I was happy to see that somebody cared enough to hand-paint and put up this sign.
I’m generally of the opinion that wildlife should stay wild and that there is no advantage for any species to get close to us humans. Wildlife encounters often do not end well.
And yet on this day, I was reminded that we don’t have to always be mere bystanders but that we are, in fact, part of nature. By allowing this experience to happen, by interacting with these usually shy, elusive wild creatures, I am reminded of my place in the greater web of life. Not as a conqueror but as a humble participant.
Initially, I’d thought I’d never again wear bright purple clothing again, if I came back here but now, after I’ve been able to process things, I’d have to say I’ll probably wear purple all over again, if it gives me the chance to experience another encounter like this. I didn’t get bit. I didn’t get stung. Every single ray was the most gentle, wild creature I’ve ever encountered.
“Would you like one as a pet?” Steve asked me when I returned to the dinghy.
All I could do was nod and smile. My brain had ceased any rational discourse and allowed me to just be, to let my feelings rule, to allow the beauty of the day to connct me to nature without academic analysis. This was one of the most amazing wild encounters of my life.
And I cannot help but think that maybe we aren’t so very removed from all other wild creatures in the animal kingdom that we cannot sometimes communicate enough goodwill to allow us to come face to face without fear and repercussions and look each other in the eyes, for the briefest of moments, and experience peace and harmony.
What if more people had the chance to experience the wild—both landscapes and creatures? Every encounter with nature reinforces my belief in being a privileged part of nature’s complex system. We may play important roles in the special equations, but we are probably not important to the general one and therefore lucky to be part of this crazy cosmic coincidence.
Tried my hand at a short film: Stingray Games