A half-mile or so off Grand Cayman Island, a few boats are drawn up in a circle in water that is greenish blue and flat as a pool table, warm as a bath. About 70 people have dropped over the sides of the boats, and as they float and drift about, their murmuring is strangely subdued. Disks of shadow pass silently around them. Stingrays -- bane of beachcombers, possessors of poison-injecting spines in their whiplike tails -- seem strange objects for the old human fantasy of communion with wild things. A sting would be excruciating (if only rarely deadly). Yet here we are among them, where they are not captured and put in a tank, but patrolling a stretch of flat sand about five feet under water that is so populous with them that it has come to be called Stingray City. There's no official regulation of the spot, but through the years so many parties of divers and tourists have come here with offerings of fish and squid that it's become a semiofficial meeting place for human and animal. Through feeding, the rays have become tame and now suffer humans to swim among them, even to touch them. In the water, snorkel and mask on, I empty my lungs of air to sink. I watch the rays move above the sand with a rippling of their fins, slate-gray on their dorsal surface and white as reef sand on their undersides, strange as subaqueous stealth bombers. The eyes are startling -- intelligent-seeming, large as human eyes, dark in their turreted sockets. Most of the creatures are at least two feet across, trailing the folded-down barb clearly visible on the whip tail. I reach out to touch a ray that passes slowly beneath me. The hide is sandpapery, made of millions of tiny overlapping scales. Another ray, a large female, sees the chunk of squid I hold. I hold out my hand: Her mouth is a lipless slit on her underside that opens to take in squid chunk and fingertips, both. There are no teeth so there is no danger, just a curious rasping grasp, a brief moment of suction. The squid is gone, and she moves on. I surface. "Hey," calls Reg, our boat's deckhand. "Come here." I paddle over to where he cradles a small ray in his arms just beneath the surface. He looks at me. "You want to hold her?" The underside is a surprise: smooth, even silky. She is heavy -- I would guess about 20 pounds. I feel the ripple of muscle beneath her skin. How strange, how strange, I think, as she rocks and moves in close to my body. Begging is one thing, but being held? I let her go and she glides off to beg from other snorkelers. The feel of her skin still tingles on my hands.
For information on the Cayman Islands and Stingray City, contact the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism, 1-800-346-3313, http://www.caymans.com.
CAPTION: Diver meets denizens of the deep in Grand Cayman's Stingray City.