A stingray feels a lot like a yoga mat in the fitness center on Oceania Cruises’ ship Insignia. And the females would be big enough to plant myself in downward facing dog if only they didn’t skitter away so quickly.
Bill and I were booked on the Swimming with Stingrays shore excursion in Antigua, a worthwhile experience that we probably could not have done on our own. Eleven of us met our driver at the pier in the capital, St. John’s, for a 30-minute pothole-filled van ride to Stingray City, an attraction on one of the island’s many bays.
An employee led an orientation using a child’s stuffed toy stingray to illustrate the parts of the animal we would soon be frolicking with. Who knew that a ray’s mouth is on its under side? The openings behind its eyes on top are used for breathing and cleaning its food, he told us. Don’t touch it, he warned. Putting any food there would be like stuffing a banana up one’s nose. Not good. We were also warned not to get too close to the ray’s mouth when feeding it. Its powerful suction on bare skin can cause a stingray love bite. And don’t worry about being stung, he told us. Rays don’t sting unless you step on their tails, an unlikely occurrence.
Lessons learned, we joined a large group of passengers from other cruises as we set off with snorkel gear in a flotilla of boats for a 15-minute ride to a sand bar. We exited onto a floating platform and lowered ourselves on ladders into clear, chest-high waters. Soon the rays were upon us, the males about two feet wide, the females five feet. And they weren’t shy. They came right to us, brushing up against our legs, startling those caught unawares and eliciting squeals of excitement. Guides brought out buckets of bait, squid mostly, and the rays began circling like a fleet of stealth bombers waiting for a turn to be fed.
Gradually we began to feel comfortable swimming with these odd looking marine creatures, though they move so fast there’s no chance of keeping pace. The best tactic: Snorkel in place and let them come to you. They glided under us, so close we could reach out to pet their rubbery yoga-mat skin.
After an hour we were back in the boat heading toward shore where a celebratory rum punch awaited. That gave me time to reflect on the ethics of the experience. The rays are not captive, but they certainly are domesticated, conditioned to be fed by humans. Does this harm them? I wonder.
On the way back to the ship, our driver pointed out a modern-looking sports stadium. Soccer? Or football, as they say on this island. Nope, it’s a world-class cricket stadium, venue for the World Cup in 2007.
Back on the Insignia, passengers have plenty of sporting activities. There’s table tennis, a putting green, baggo bean tournaments, shuffleboard, yoga and Pilates classes and workouts with a personal trainer. Of course, there’s the swimming pool, though doing the breaststroke isn’t nearly as exciting as swimming with a stingray.