It all started with a naturally formed sand bar 3.5 miles off shore Grand Cayman, an island in the British West Indies south of Cuba. A coral reef formed a horseshoe shape, and storms over the years had pushed sand into the reef where it was trapped and built up until the sand bar became so shallow that one could stand in it. Outside the reef, depths fell to 80 feet and then plunged to thousands of feet.
Enter humans: fishermen working off the island found the mosquitoes intolerable when they returned to shore and gutted their catch. One fisherman had the bright idea to gut the fish in the calm waters of the sandbar. Others followed him. Sting rays caught on. The rumble of boat engines signaled to them lots of easy food, and they made a habit of meeting humans there.
Enter tourism: an enterprising Grand Caymanian named the sand bar “Sting Ray City,” and began to ferry tourists out to enjoy close encounters with these enormous and intimidating sea creatures. Our Scottish boat captain briefed us on safety tips for handling and (yes) even kissing the sting rays. The big ones are the females, and they are agreeable to a rub on the nose or the side fins, but keep your hands away from the gills and the mouth. (Notice the eyes are on the top, and the mouth on the bottom, so they can’t see what their mouths are suctioning. The suction is strong enough to pull a conch out of its shell, which (if you have ever tried to do that) is pretty damn difficult. Oh, and by the way, if you step on one, they might say, “Hey, don’t stand on my head!”
Remembering the horrible death of the fearless animal handler Steve Irwin, I passed on the petting opportunity. The challenge of underwater photography was my thrill for the day. However, the fearless Ed Smith, apparently emboldened by his 60th birthday, kissed a giant sting ray — so he’ll have good luck, Cayman style, for the next seven years. Here is Ed in the flowered swim trunks.