Turtles, Stingrays and a Glimpse of Hell in the Cayman Islands

by Leila Khani

Leila and her mom swimming with stingrays in the Cayman Islands
Leila and her mom swimming with stingrays in the Cayman Islands

It was another gorgeous, sunny day in the Caribbean.  My mother and I were about halfway through our Caribbean cruise, and had already lounged on the beach in Princess Cays in the Bahamas, and climbed the Dunn’s River Falls in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. I was on a birthday cruise celebrating my 30th birthday.

Could things get any better, especially considering the first-class experience we lived every day aboard the Emerald Princess? Apparently they could.

After our tender dropped us ashore on Grand Cayman Island, we boarded our air-conditioned bus and began our and Stingray Sandbar and Cayman Highlights adventure. The friendly tour guide told us all about his home country as we drove through towns and along beaches, until we arrived at Boatswain’s Beach and the Cayman Turtle Farm – the only green-sea-turtle breeding facility of its kind.

It was fascinating to see the large, 600-pound adults swimming in pools, and the egg-laying beach they used at night. The highlight for me, though, was getting to hold one of the tiny yearling turtles and take pictures with it! Some of these little guys (and gals!) stay on at the farm to continue the breeding program, and the others are tagged and released into the wild. It’s a beautiful thing to see conservation in action!

After touring the turtle tanks, we had time to browse in the gift shop before hopping back on the bus.

Next stop: the Tortuga Rum Cake Factory! Now I’m not usually a big fan of rum, but I couldn’t stop sampling all the yummy cakes – coconut, chocolate, lime, orange, mocha…it went on and on! Good thing we could buy a few before continuing on our way. To Hell.

Yes, Hell. Turns out, it’s a tiny village that boasts a field full of jagged, protruding limestone formations that look eerie and disturbing enough to justify the place’s name. Coincidentally enough, the short burst of a rain shower chased us back onto the bus, and then stopped before we got to a local pier.

There, we boarded a boat for a lovely, breezy ride to the most anticipated site of the day – Stingray Sandbar! There were a large number of other boats around, and I thought we might have been too late to see any stingrays. I shouldn’t have worried. As soon as we dropped anchor, the dark, flat, wavy shapes started gathering around our boat…and they came in all sizes, from large adults to tiny babies!

A little apprehensively, and heeding our guides’ warning not to step on any, I lowered myself into the warm, clear, waist-deep water. I have to admit, I was a little uncomfortable at first, and not sure what to expect! But, not long after, I felt a passing flutter against my leg – like a soft wing saying ‘Hello’ as it swam by. What a feeling!

I settled in to thoroughly enjoy the experience after that. Our guides held onto a few rays so that we could take pictures kissing and petting the smooth and grainy creatures…and they even draped them on our backs!

After a thrilling time basking in the water surrounded by gentle stingrays, it was with reluctance that I got back on the boat for the cruise back to the pier. And there, we awaited the bus that then brought us home to our cruise ship, Emerald Princess.

What a day! Baby turtles, rum cake, a glimpse of Hell, and swimming with Southern stingrays. I can truly say that it was one of my greatest, most essential experiences thus far!