Stingrays, Ethics, and a Short History of Stingray City

is it ethical to dive with stingrays?

After I finished writing my post about diving with stingrays in Stingray City, Grand Cayman, I wondered if it was ethical. After all, you are feeding wild animals and it isn’t just you. It’s half the people you are diving with (one container of squid per two buddies) and all of the other people visiting Stingray City that day… and that year… and so forth.

I did some research:

  • Squid isn’t normally a part of a stingray’s diet. Strike one.
  • Stingrays hunt alone at night. These rays are being fed during the day, while swarming in groups. Strike 2.
  • Stingrays normally cover long distances while looking for food. These guys and gals are homebodies. Strike 3. (All information in this list is from this source).

It seemed so innocent at the time. Legend has it that the stingrays started gathering in Stingray City because fisherman were dumping the fish guts into the water. It happened to be in a sandy and shallow area where rays normally feed. Then, along came divers and snorkelers.

Swimming with stingrays

Freeimages.com/GregoryRunyan
An image of a large group of people enjoying the Stingray Sandbar.

The divers came first. Two of them to be exact. In 1981, two dive instructors named Jay Ireland and Pat Kenney decided to take the risk. Back then, not much was known about rays. They were feared creatures and it took a lot of guts (no pun intended, or is it?) to get into the water with the majestic rays. The area became famous around 1987 and now, it is an extremely popular tourist spot within Grand Cayman.

There are two areas referred to as Stingray City. The one also known as the Valley of the Rays is the real Stingray City. This area is 12-15 feet deep and also the spot I dove. The other one is the sandbar, no diving equipment needed (Source and source).

Human interactions with this area have changed the habits of the local population of of rays. They are more aggressive towards each other and are having babies year round, without regard to their normal cycle. Their changed behavior can also affect the ecosystem around them, but it sounds like that hasn’t been studied in depth yet.

What’s the positive? Rays are no longer feared man killers. Though their habits have changed, the creatures have been observed foraging for food when tourists aren’t present (source).

Ethically, feeding the rays is a pretty bad idea. Kissing them and holding them for selfies is also not a good idea (probably worse). To be candid, the experience is awesome and a little disconcerting. You will be up close and personal with them, whether you like it or not. You simply cannot get the same type of encounter diving or snorkeling a reef. Diving with and feeding rays is a manufactured experience, though. Snorkeling and diving a reef is a much better way to see a stingray behaving like a stingray (they will avoid the heck out of you).

Did I make the wrong choice?

Probably. It’s a hard realization to swallow. I’m glad we weren’t handling the animals, kissing, or taking selfies with them. Is there a way to turn this amazing experience into one that wouldn’t be hard on the conscience? I hope so. I do believe that special experiences shape us and help us to become softer and more aware of what is around us. Rays are now regarded as gentle creatures and aren’t being massacred out of fear, like some species. They are, however, eaten in some parts of the world. Bounties are placed on their heads in other areas, because they destroy the shell fishing grounds (though the latter statement was found on Wikipedia and I couldn’t verify it).

That said, these are my opinions. I did it in 2004 without thinking about the consequences, so I can’t really tell you “do it” or “don’t do it.” That’s up to you and what your conscience tells you to do.

Is it possible to have special, life-changing experiences with animals that don’t have a negative impact on the animals in question?

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22 thoughts on “Stingrays, Ethics, and a Short History of Stingray City

    • natalie says:

      Stingray City is located right off of Grand Cayman Island. There are other places you can swim with stingrays, most notably Antigua. I haven’t been there, so I don’t have any juicy details about it. Happy swimming!

  1. Koen says:

    Being a diver and considering myself an eco-traveler, I have the same concerns as you share here about swimming with animals. I think that when we start feeding them (not just the ones in the sea), we start changing their behavior, ending in the disturbance of the balance.
    I’m happy you raise the issue that many travelers deal with when confronted with local customs and tours.

    • natalie says:

      Back in 2004 when I did this dive, it never occurred to me to wonder if I should. I first heard about it when I arrived on Grand Cayman, I didn’t know we would be feeding them until the pre-dive briefing, and it’s presented as something that was going on for a long time prior to divers and swimmers enjoying the experience (fishermen dumping the fish guts in the area since at least the 1960s).

      Hopefully, there are still ways to have amazing experiences without the upset of balance.

  2. Laura @ Grassroots Nomad says:

    This is one of the best things about tourism – you are always learning. I write about ethical tourism and I still make mistakes sometimes even though I spend a long time researching. Travel is a learning process and it is all about making better decisions in the future and helping spread awareness. Great article. I haven’t swum with stingrays before and I won’t be now. Thanks again, I will be sharing this with my followers 🙂

    • natalie says:

      Thanks, Laura! I am sad to say it never occurred to me to question it until now. Again, I’m grateful for the experience, but it certainly wasn’t normal stingray behavior.

  3. Andra says:

    I love it when people research more places which they have already visited. You should be proud that now you are more aware of the situation. I have read similar posts from people who had previously been to tiger temples or elephant sanctuaries. It’s no sin that we happen to go, it’s life, we learn from our mistakes. The important thing is to share our research once we find out negative consequences of some touristic activities. Thank you for sharing this

    • natalie says:

      Thanks, Andra! It’s true! We can learn and move forward. Maybe it can turn positive by avoiding the next touristy-yet-bad-for-animals activity.

  4. Adelina says:

    It’s always tough to know the right call when trying to be ethical in your travels. I think it’s okay to make the wrong decision because you can always learn from those experiences and use it to educate others like you have here.

  5. Natasha says:

    Thank you for this post. I went scuba diving with sting rays a long time ago as part of a cruise excursion and after reading this I can see why that could have been a bad thing. I wish we were all more informed.

  6. Shobha says:

    I’ve never heard of sting ray city in the Bahamas. My kids like Mr. Ray from Finding Nemo but I don’t think they’d want to get up close and personal (and from what you write, that’s probably better for all involved).

    • natalie says:

      This one is in Grand Cayman. I think you can swim with pigs in the Bahamas.

      Mr. Ray was awesome, wasn’t he? But yes, it’s better to admire from afar!

  7. Sara Broers says:

    We have never done the stingray experience, I have seen several do it while in cruise ports. I struggle with all of the posing, selfies and social media driven things that intrude on nature. Thanks for offering insight and making me think a little more.

  8. Danielle says:

    I thought it was interesting that in this post you reflected on how ethical it was to participate in StingRay City. I think putting this out there will help educate other travelers and help them make more conscious decisions. If squid isn’t part of their diets, I wonder why they’re being feed them? Do you think its economical?

  9. Buena Montero says:

    Oh wow… I am actually planning a trip to Grand Cayman for the main purpose of swimming with stingrays. I thought it’s just perfect experience for the kids. I haven’t done much research though BUT Thank you for bringing it up… i will definitely reconsider.

    • natalie says:

      It’s certainly an experience! You could refuse to feed, touch, and kiss them. They swarmed the divers and I’m sure they are conditioned to do the same to swimmers. It wouldn’t solve the problem, but could be a move in the right direction. Also, I found a link that there is a dive company that only allows the guides to feed the rays. You could snorkel above. If there’s call for it, ethical tours will emerge.

  10. Megan Whitely says:

    Although I agree with most of your article, I do think that there are a few companies that do try hard to be as responsible as possible. I went to Stingray City in Grand Cayman last month with my family with a company called George’s Watersports https://georgeswatersports.ky/stingray-city-grand-cayman/ and they didn’t feed the stingrays squid because they were aware that squid is not part of their natural diet. They also took really small groups (no more than 10 people) and made sure everyone was aware of how to treat the stingrays in a respectful manner. In a perfect world no animals would be “exploited”, but on a small islands where economic opportunity is limited for locals, you can’t blame them.

    • Natalie says:

      That is excellent news!

      I didn’t say I blamed them – the tourists are there and paying a lot of money for the experience. As a tourist, the more informed we are, the better. We can seek out a more ethical version of the experience we want to have.

      I’m not perfect and I’ve made a few travel mistakes. However, I can make a difference going forward by researching responsible tourism companies and reading about the ethical issues.

      I’m glad to hear that there are companies who are making a difference to the animals living around them!

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