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Where Stingrays Come for Lunch

A snorkeler makes friends with the sea creatures during an organized feeding session

THE captain cuts the boat's engine in the middle of a Caribbean dream world: blue sky, aqua sea, gentle breeze. I look around, wondering how the dive master knows this is the place.

Suddenly I spot one, two (wait, three; no, more) large dark patches moving beneath the water, silently making a beeline for our boat.

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The stingrays are coming for lunch. And I'm going into the water to feed them!

There are only two reasons most people come to Grand Cayman Island: banking and tourism. Unlike Col. Oliver North and the officials of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), who reportedly made use of this "Geneva of the Caribbean," my wife and I weren't planning to conduct any oh-so-quiet offshore financial deals. We just wanted to enjoy the island's scenic delights and relax at a rented house far from George Town, the capital, with family members gathered from the Midwest and East Coast.

But it wasn't long after arriving on Grand Cayman, a tiny British protectorate south of Cuba, that I heard about "Stingray City." It was a must-do activity for snorkelers and scuba divers alike, we were told.

We arranged to join a diving party organized by the dive shop at Cayman Kai resort at Rum Point, just up the road from our house. (Most dive shops, including those along popular Seven Mile Beach on the far side of the island, make trips to Stingray City.)

Though our dive master had explained the history of the dive site, I called the dive shop later just to make sure I had gotten it straight. In 1986 local fishermen were taking snorkelers out with them when they hunted for conch, explained Ray Williams, the dive manager at Cayman Kai. As they cleaned their catch, bits of meat fell to the sandy bottom only 12 feet below. Southern stingrays (D. americana), who are natural bottom feeders, gathered to eat the feast. The snorkelers would watch from the surface .

By 1987, scuba divers began trying to hand-feed the stingrays. At first the rays were too shy and the divers had to throw food to them. But eventually the rays began to eat from the divers' hands, sucking the food from outstretched palms like underwater vacuum cleaners.

Despite reputations as creatures to be avoided, these stingrays are not really dangerous, says Mr. Williams. Although there have been "one or two accidents," the rays at Stingray City are used to humans and "they would never intentionally harm people," he says. Since the rays lack real teeth ("they have grinding plates, like nurse sharks"), the only part of the animal to be wary of is the barb at the base of its tail.

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Nonetheless, the slight aura of danger, "bordering on fear and excitement," attracts snorkelers and divers of all ages and backgrounds. More than thrill-seeking, it's a chance to come into intimate contact with graceful and beautiful sea creatures.

Back on the boat, the dive master has told everyone to get ready to enter the water. Divers pull on wet suits, weight belts, and tanks.

Snorkelers have a simpler job: Put on fins, rub a dab of toothpaste over the inside of the mask's face plate (a trick for keeping it from fogging up), and pop the snorkel in your mouth.

TRYING to remember how Lloyd Bridges did it years ago on "Sea Hunt," I hit the water feet first, legs splayed, hands holding my mask to my face. As I look down, I can see the scuba divers kneeling on the bottom. Stingrays swirl around them, coming from every side to take food from outstretched hands. One diver is using an underwater video camera to record the event.

The snorkelers aren't left out. The dive master has explained that he'll use food to lure some stingrays to the surface so that we can stroke their smooth undersides. "You only need two hand signals on this dive," he says. Beckoning with one hand means "bring me a stingray." Crossing both hands vigorously means "I'm as close as I care to get, thank you."

I give the "come hither" signal and soon I'm making acquaintance with a three-foot-wide pancake, with eyes on top and mouth on its underside.

Sensing quickly that I have no food, it heads back to the bottom for better prospects.

As I become more comfortable with these creatures, I begin diving to the bottom, some 12 feet below, to get the scuba divers' perspective, if only for a few seconds. On one dive I briefly follow a lone ray, watching it "fly" through its underwater sky on undulating "wings."

After a few minutes I notice that the divers have gathered around a rock formation on the sandy floor. The dive master is signaling others to come and take a look.

From the surface, I'm not quite sure what he's found. I dive again, come within a few feet of the rock, then stop short. The dive master has coaxed a moray eel halfway out from his hiding place. The cautious eel alternately snatches food from the hand and retreats back into his rock.

That's a fish-feeding experience I'll leave for another time, I decide, as I head for the surface and a welcome gulp of air.

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