A visit to Stingray City is one of the most popular things to do on Grand Cayman Island in the western Caribbean. Located on a natural offshore sandbar on the northwest corner of the island in the North Sound, Stingray City is home to dozens of southern Atlantic stingrays. This area of the ocean is only accessible by boat, and once you’re there, you can get right into the water with the stingrays or view them from the boat.
We can thank local fishermen for Stingray City as we know it today – a group of sandbars where you can swim with, feed and even take photos with stingray that keep coming back over and over again. It’s said that this all started with fishermen anchoring in this shallow area that was protected by the Barrier Reef. They would clean the fish they caught there and some say they would dump their unused conch and squid meat, so when the stingrays heard the boats, they knew they’d be fed.
In 1981, dive instructors Jay Ireland and Pat Kenney discovered Stingray City and after that, divers would visit the sandbar and feed the stingrays. Over time, the stingrays socialized more as they had continuous human interaction. Somewhere around 1986, underwater photographer Geri Murphy Tzimoulis came up with the name “Stingray City” and it quickly became a tourist destination as tours would take people out to experience it for themselves.
What to Expect
Stingrays are not dangerous; in fact, the stingrays found at Stingray City are almost domesticated, which is evident in the way that they swim around and brush against you in a way that appears they enjoy your company and want to play. One tour guide tells a story about how her favorite stingray stopped coming to the sandbar for many months and then one day reappeared and came right up to her.
Swimming with the stingrays in Grand Cayman is a unique experience. Your boat will take you to the sandbar about 15 to 20 minutes offshore, which will look like one patch of clear blue water that indicates it’s quite shallow in that area (typically around 3 feet deep).
The boat you take may be a catamaran, motor boat or glass-bottomed boat and the trip duration, as well as other stops to snorkeling areas, (like Rum Point or Starfish Point) will also vary. But once you get to Stingray City, you’ll immediately see them swimming around in the clear water from the boat.
Before you get off the boat, your tour guide will teach you about these animals, including exactly how to interact with them, where to touch or not touch them and even how to pick them up properly if you wish to do so. They'll also point out tips like how to identify a male or female (males are smaller). If you’re not into swimming, you can stay on the boat and watch from afar. If that’s the case, you may want to opt for a glass-bottom boat.
Picking the stingrays up may seem intimidating, but your tour guides will help you and it’s not as hard as it looks. Plus it makes for a great photo if you’re able to capture one with an underwater camera. Many of the tour guides even know which ones are the most willing to be picked up given that they interact with them regularly. You can tell the guides truly love these animals. Each boat is allowed to feed the stingrays a certain amount of food and some tours will let you feed them yourself.
How to Visit Stingray City
There are several different tour companies that offer boat trips to Stingray City, each offering a slightly different experience, whether it’s the boat itself, time of day or where it stops.
One of the most popular and reputable tour groups to book with is Red Sail Sports. They take visitors to Stingray City on luxury catamarans out to Stingray City with other stops depending on the tour you book. Some stop at coral reefs near Stingray City, while others go to Rum Point or for a sunset cruise. Kids pay half price.
Red Sail Sports excursions leaving from their Safehaven dock last from 3.5 to 5.5 hours, with other shorter options departing from Rum Point, one of which is a 1.5-hour glass-bottom tour rather than a catamaran.
The Rum Point departure point is ideal if you’re staying on the North side of the island or if you already plan on spending the day there but want a break from the beach for a bit. This is also where you’ll go for the glass-bottom boat tour. If you’re not planning on renting a car, you can get to Rum Point by ferry from Camana Bay. The ferry goes to Kaibo Beach, which is a short drive to Rum Point, and you can pay a small amount extra for a bus ride between the two.
Aside from Red Sail Sports, there are plenty of other companies to book with. Captain Marvin’s, Moby Dick Tours and Stingray City Cayman Islands are a few alternates, though you’ll find others once you are on the island as well.
Another option is to take a private tour, which is more expensive but may be ideal if you have a big group. And if you’re more adventurous, consider a jet ski tour through groups like Fat Fish Adventures or Sweet Spot Watersports.
Unless you’re departing from Rum Point, your tour will probably include a pick-up at your hotel along Seven Mile Beach. Those visiting on cruise ships will be transported from George Town where they arrive after checking in with the tour group.
How to Book a Tour
If you’re visiting Grand Cayman on a cruise ship, you can oftentimes book through the cruise line before you get off, but if not, there are several booths to do so right when you step off the cruise in George Town.
Things to Do Nearby
If you plan on taking the ferry to Rum Point, plan on spending some time in Camana Bay, where the boat departs from, before or after visiting Rum Point and Stingray City. This waterfront area is filled with shops, restaurants, fitness classes and more, and they hold events throughout the year. Popular restaurants include Agua for delicious Italian-inspired seafood and cocktails; The Brooklyn Pizza + Pasta for wood-fired pizza and handmade pasta; and Gelato & Co. for dessert. Once a week Camana Bay also offers a fun flavor tour experience.
Since the ferry takes you to Kaibo Beach, stop by the Kaibo Beach Bar & Grill for a refreshing mudslide. It’s located right next to the ferry pier. And once you’re at Rum Point (there’s a $5 bus you can take there after the ferry from Kaibo Beach), you can lay on the beach, partake in water sports like kayaking or stand up paddle boarding, or get some food and drinks.
If you'd rather explore local beaches, walk about 10 minutes past Rum Point on the main road until you come to Cayman Kai public beach. There are facilities there but not much else, so be sure to pack accordingly.
Tips & Recommendations
- Book an early morning or evening tour. The sandbar gets very crowded mid-day and results in a much less enjoyable experience. Early morning is best, but evening tours can also be good because those visiting on cruise ships have to get back on board before then.
- Avoid days where lots of cruise ships are visiting. Cruise ships tout this as the top attraction on the island, so you can guarantee there will be crowds once these tourists make their way out to the sandbar.
- Book before you go. Depending on the exact tour you want, how busy the island is and the amount of cruise ships visiting, tours do book up. Don’t wait until the last minute, especially if you have a particular tour or date in mind.
- Use credit card points to book your tour. This is a great way to save money on tours. Many credit cards offer travel activities like this as ways to use your credit card points. They are typically booked on the back end through TripAdvisor or Expedia.
- Bring an underwater camera. The water is incredibly clear on the sandbar and you’ll be able to capture shots of the stingrays swimming around. Many boats do have photographers on board and will help you hold a stingray for a photo opportunity that would be hard to get on your own, but keep in mind that they can be pricey to purchase.
- Don’t be afraid of the stingrays. As mentioned earlier, they are friendly and not afraid of humans. For those familiar with Australian Steve Irwin, a.k.a. the “Crocodile Hunter,” being killed by a giant ray off the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, keep in mind that Caribbean stingrays are much smaller. Although you can get hurt if you step on the barb, a smaller ray thrashing its barbed tail would not have the power to puncture your chest. His incident was an accident and there are mixed reports on how this happened.