It was with great trepidation that I entered the shallow waters with the resident stingrays at Dolphin Fantaseas.
As I walked down the 3 steps and knelt in the water 2 of the stingrays immediately came over looking for me to share the snacks that I had in my hand, small pieces of fish and squid. As I put my hand under the larger stingray, (their mouths are under the body) I was amazed at how smooth and soft they felt, in fact I would describe them as almost "silky" in texture. The stingray sucked the food out of my fingers and casually glided off for a moment only to make a U-turn to come back for more. Meanwhile other stingrays had come over and were "flying" all around me, over the backs of my legs and close to my body with their wings rubbing over my torso. They were not aggressive or scary in the slightest; in fact they were darn right friendly, each one trying to get closer to the source of food in my hand. They all allowed me to feed them and generally let me pet them, stroking their white under bellies and dark tops.
This was a truly amazing experience, I realized that these creatures have been misnamed by being called "Stingrays"- even though these rays have had their "stinger" removed, (a painless procedure similar to humans clipping their nails), they were extremely friendly and totally unafraid or intimidated by the presence of humans. I came away with a greater appreciation for these wonderful creatures.
In the warm, shallow waters of the Atlantic coastline lives the graceful Southern Stingray. They can be found as far north as New Jersey all the way down to Brazil, nudging into the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. Its name is derived from the long, thin tail that whips through the waters with sharp, stinging barbs located at the tail's base. Their bodies are shaped like a flat, diamond pancake, ranging in a variety of colors like slate, sand, and speckled brown, naturally blending into the seafloor - a perfect camouflage from hungry predators. They use pectoral fins made of cartilage on their sides like wings that ripple to swim through water. From above, they look like a dark kite or large Portobello mushroom gliding and waving in the wind.
Although they prefer shallow waters for hunting and hiding, they've been known to travel as deep as 150 feet. They are independent creatures that can travel alone, in pairs, and sometimes small groups. However, Stingrays tend to have a diverse following of fish that enjoy tagging along during its daily travels, catching all the freebies that stir up from the stingrays shallow, sweeping movements. So when you find a stingray, you'll find an eclectic group of marine life happy to be in its company.
Stingrays generally feed on mollusks, crustaceans, shellfish, and sometimes small fish - depending on what they can scavenge along the sea floor. Their mouth is located on the bottom side of their bodies (which is lighter in color - almost white) just below their blunt snout. With flattened, strong teeth they easily carve their meals out of shells. To find food, they wiggle their thin bodies under the sandy floor, using paired breathing holes (spiracles) behind their eyes, which are located at the topside of their bodies. The spiracles on top work in sync with the gills on bottom to draw in and release water creating a pressure that allows them delve deeper in the sand. This maneuver is also employed when hiding out from predator passersby, usually sharks.
Although sharks are a stingray's main threat, they share common attributes and are a relative of the Nurse Shark. Both sharks and stingrays birth live young. A female stingray will carry a litter of 3-5 eggs (with records up to 12) that will hatch in the open waters and look like miniature, 4-inch replicas of their parents.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Stingray is its regular visit to "cleaning stations". They meander to reef spots where Bluehead Wrasse, Spanish hogfish, and others gladly nibble away parasites and mucus from the stingray's body, providing a refreshing scouring for dirt-ridden rays and a healthy meal for the bathers.
Now visitors to Anguilla have the opportunity to get in the water with these beautiful animals in a safe controlled environment at Dolphin Fantaseas. Call 264.497.7946 for more information and prices.
Story by Annmarie Letang, photo by Rocklyn Maynard.Revised: 2002/4/20
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