“ At Stingray City you will be able to pet and feed Southern Stingrays in their natural environment. „
Stingray City - quite a name, huh? Could it be an Arizona hot-spot for Corvette haters? Well perhaps, but it's not. Could it be a town in Queensland, Australia, perhaps conveniently located between Porpoise Spit and Dolphin Promontory? Well again, yes it could, but it isn't.
Stingray City is the place just off the north coast of the Caribbean island of Antigua where you can swim with real, live stingrays.
A 30-minute coach ride from the capital of St John, over to the north coast of the island, the Stingray City operation at Seaton's Village sits right on a section of coast in-between two headlands. They have some outdoor space and picnic tables for you to sit at whilst you're waiting and facilities for you to change into swimming gear if you want - some people put on wet suits and so on, too - the snorkeling is good.
Once the team are ready for your party they give you the safety talk, load you up into small, flat-bottomed rigid boats that each hold about 15 - 20 people and take you out to the section of reef which is netted off to provide a giant outdoor fish tank. The ride out was bumpy - the boats seemed to hit every shallow wave, a bit like being on a trotting horse when your timing is out and your rear-end slams down hard on the seat on all the up-strokes - but it only takes 5 minutes or so. You are issued with a life-vest to wear and also have a snorkel and mask, if you want.
The 30 or so rays are in captivity, they are trapped within this netted area, but this is the sea, not a tank or pool and they swim free within the confines of the netted area - think fish farm, really, or wildlife preserve more than aquarium or zoo.
The boats - three on the day I was there, a party of about 50 guests and 5 or 6 staff - tie up alongside a floating platform next to the netted area and there are steps down into the area the stingrays are in. The water is three to six feet deep, incredibly clear and the green colour of shallow Caribbean water when it is over white sand. You can see through it really clearly, and what at first look like boulders of varying size start to move and you realize that these are the stingrays: And they are coming to see you.
These are dangerous animals. Most of us are aware of the Aussie naturalist Steve Irwin who recently tragically died as a result of a sting and these are full size rays - but they are also accustomed to people and of course they know that the visitors also mean squid, so they are actually rather like big, aquatic puppies. They brush past and you can touch them - the instructors/staff tell you what you can and cannot do, including not lifting them too far up, in order not to distress them. You are also warned to watch out because, whilst they do not bite, they can give you a nasty suck and leave a mark a bit like a love bite.
(Imagine, for a moment, trying to explain that one away: No honest, I just got a slightly firm kiss from an over-affectionate stingray...)
For the next 10 minutes, most of the guests rather gingerly walked/floated/swam about. Being with the rays takes a little time to get use to and the ones in this area ranged in size from dinner plate to dustbin lid to the largest, which I suppose were about 4 feet across - pretty large, certainly, and especially so when they brush past you under water. They were constantly swimming about and there might be none near you then 10 seconds later two or three passing at once, brushing up against you and coming past on both sides.
And then the staff got the squid out: I conclude that rays like squid quite a lot. They went, if not into a feeding frenzy then at least into stingray overdrive and came past quickly and often to get a share of the squid. The staff offered guests the option to take handfuls of squid and feed it to the rays, but I must admit I declined (can't think why).
Some folk stayed in the water just 5 minutes, some were in there for a full 30 minutes or so (it was pleasantly warm, at least). Snorkelers snorkeled and covered the whole of the contained area, maybe 200 by 100 yards or so and once we were all back on the pontoon and loaded into the boats, back we went.
There was a drink of fruit or rum punch to be had on return, the use of the changing rooms and showers if you wanted and then the chance to buy the official (and inevitable) souvenir photo, plus a variety of t-shirts and 'tacky tourist' knick-knacks and gee-gaws.
Non-swimmers could manage this if they wanted to try (you can stay in the area where you can stand up and still see the rays) although it is not too easy to get into and out of the water. Family friendly but not really suitable for very small children/infants, there is no-where to sit at the pontoon, no loo facilities out there and no way of getting out of the sun.
We paid $69US per person, including the return transfer from St John.
I would recommend that is as a very different trip with pretty good bragging rights.
(By the way, did you know that American's correctly pronounce Antigua as ant-eeg-wah instead of the English mispronunciation of an-teeg-a? Well, they do. Spanish origin word and the cousins get it right, we get it wrong.)