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October 2006 Vol. 32, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Stingray City Tours Continue Despite Irwin's Death

from the October, 2006 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Grand Cayman dive tour operators plan to make no changes in their daily trips to Stingray City, despite the fatal attack on Steve Irwin. Mark Button, an operator for Moby Dick Tours, told CNN, “I think the phenomenon is totally different to what you encounter in the wild.” For more than 20 years Button’s been taking tourists to the location where up to 50 stingrays await handouts of squid from divers and snorkelers. “The fish have been hand-fed for more than two decades,” he said. “Therefore, they’re in a different state of affairs when it comes to dealing with humans.” Button does warn tourists not to make sudden movements, and to keep their hands away from the stingrays’ tails, where the serrated barb is housed.

None of the company’s tour participants — some 600 per day — has ever suffered “any serious injuries,” he said. “They have the odd sting now and again.”

But, there are injuries. Last year an 11-year-old boy was bitten by an eel at Sting Ray City. During a six-hour surgical procedure on Grand Cayman, doctors used a vein from his leg to help restore blood flow to his hand, then the boy was air evacuated (the flight cost was $21,000) home to Wisconsin for further surgery.

Cayman underwater photographer Cathy Church told Undercurrent, “What happened to Steve Irwin and what goes on at Stingray City have virtually nothing in common. Steve unfortunately scared and perhaps cornered a very large, wild stingray … that had never related to humans before.” Church, who leads Stingray City tours herself, adds that the unique site “is occupied by smaller, more docile rays that have been interacting with humans all of their lives… These rays come of their own free will … and travel benignly from person to person looking for food… To evoke a defensive reaction, a person would have to cause actual bodily harm to the ray by punching it very hard, grabbing it viciously, stabbing it with a knife or trying to hold it down. I have pushed and shoved these rays a lot while feeding them and defending myself from their insistence on eating all of the food at one time. We lift them for the tourists, we hold food under their mouths to make them follow us, and they just go along with it all because at the end of the day they are contented and full.”

Perhaps. But, what wild land animals get such treatment? Why is it acceptable to abuse and treat fish like toys? What is the philosophical and moral justification? Is it enough to say that it’s ok to wear a ray like a hat because it goes along with it? Does anyone debate questions such as these in the presumably civilized Caymans?

Thankfully, new draft regulations may impose a ban on lifting stingrays from the water. Gina Ebanks-Petrie, Director of the Department of Environment, told the Caymanian Compass that the proposed regulations are aimed at protecting rays, not tourists. Stingrays would be designated as a protected species, and feeding them would be limited. Fishing or removing any marine life from the area, wearing footwear close to rays and the reef and anchoring boats over the sandbar and shallow coral areas would be prohibited. Also, a new stingray feeding site will be allowed on smaller and deeper sand bars southeast of the current site, if no new sites are established anywhere else in the Caymans.

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