|Trying to get away from me.|
So we got to the spot and there were no tour boats. Frances rolled into the water first. Immediately, three stingrays with 4- to 5-foot wingspans swam up to her, nudging and enveloping her. I didn’t have the camera ready. We all followed her in. Our friends Ryan and Nicole aboard Naoma were with us. They brought a can of sardines. A piece of fish landed near me and rays converged.
Never having touched a stingray before now, I expected a firm-feeling animal with a sharkskin-like surface. Instead I was shocked at how pillowy soft and supple they are. The skin on a stingray’s back makes a baby’s butt feel like 60-grit sandpaper.
They approach like dogs, even seeming to have personalities. Their mouths are on the bottoms of their bodies, about 4 inches aft of their leading edge. So after giving a nudge, they’ll turn upwards and feel you with their mouth. Standing vertically in the shallows, they’d tug on my swim shirt and keep rising up my chest until the front of their bodies were out of the water. I couldn’t help but laugh.
But it was a bit of a nervous laughter. Isn’t this the same animal that ended Steve Irwin’s life years ago? I kept my eyes on the long, rebar-like tails. Yet I knew bus drivers and librarians and honeymooners have been right here, swimming with the same animals, for as long as the boats have been bringing the tourists out.
As soon as I’d push against the rays, they’d respond, relaxing to the point that I could easily manipulate them, moving them to one side or downward. I’d grab the opportunity to stroke their soft topsides, leaving marks where I brushed away a layer of silt, like kids’ hands across a dusty car window.
As the sharks swam around, keeping their distance, the rays seemed focused on getting any food they could, exploring each of us in turn, crisscrossing each other as they swam methodically through the surrounding water, making sure every morsel was gotten. When they decided we had nothing more to offer, they’d retreat about 20 feet and snuggle into the sandy bottom, lined up like parked cars, awaiting the next group.