>Annabelle Williams swims with stingrays in northern Antigua’s Mercers Creek Bay
With their ethereal, otherworldly faces, stingrays could be from another planet. But here I am, standing waist deep in water, surrounded by dozens of these gray, pancake-like fish.
In Mercers Creek Bay, northern Antigua, a breed of stingray known as the Southern Ray gathers to await feeding from the regular tourist boats.
Nicknamed “the puppy dog of the ocean”, a chorus of these docile creatures peer up from the water as our boat approaches. I’m on a swimming with stingrays experience tour with a company called Stingray City. Although it lacks the cutesy factor of swimming with dolphins, and has less of the danger factor of a shark encounter, a dip in the water with stingrays is still fascinating.
The meeting takes place in a curious part of the ocean. The boat pulls up to a spot which must be at least a mile from any shoreline, but the water here is shallow enough to barely reach my chest. It’s crystal blue, too, clear and perfect. There is no pen enclosing the stingrays, they come of their own accord for food.
On shore, the guide has given us a quick lesson on the stingray’s anatomy. Big eyes on top, little mouth underneath in the water and, most importantly, the sting located halfway down their tail. Famously, Australian naturalist Steve Irwin died from a stingray sting, but these swimming encounters are very safe and accidents are rare. These rays, habituated to feeding from boats, are tame around humans. They are related to sharks, but unlike their cousins they do not behave aggressively, and the sting is used solely in self-defence.
Nobody told me how graceful they would be. As we stand in the water, these beautiful silver pancakes glide soundlessly around us. I bob around with my snorkel amazed at how agile these surprisingly large creatures are (the females are around four feet wide, males smaller). They swim in sharp bursts, their sides rippling. They pay us no attention, but every now and again one bumps into me, and their brute strength becomes apparent.
A man hands me a dead squid out of a bucket. Around him, the stingrays have taken to the surface of the water, attracted by the scent of the squid. The water becomes choppy with movement and one stingray rears at me, raising its mouth towards my hand. The squid is sucked from my grip, pulled into the vortex and slurped up by the ray. I’m pleased to have fed one. Elsewhere, there’s the opportunity to “hug” a stingray, which loosely translates as putting your arms around one for the length of time it takes the cameraman to snap a picture.
There are lots of children in the group, and they love the experience. The water is never deeper than chest-height for an adult and little people wear life jackets while paddling around.
The feeding frenzy, snorkelling and stingray hugging take a good 40 minutes, and when people have had their fill they head back onto the boat where there’s a deck for sunbathing. Slowly the rays head back into the ocean, too, and by the time the boat is ready to leave there are just three or four still hovering around.
Back on dry land, Antigua’s landscape is wild and rambling, all undulating hills and endless forests. Curiously, the highest peak on the island was renamed “Mount Obama” in 2009 as a tribute to the US President, a slightly odd but more sophisticated name than its centuries old moniker “Boggy Peak”.
This island is famously home to 365 beaches, and many are in sheltered bays with calm, deep water good enough for swimming and watersports. I try out paddleboarding – essentially standing on a surfboard and using a paddle to move around. It’s like kayaking, but standing up. This sport is all the rage on Scandinavian canals, but the secluded cove on English Harbour, where I stay, is ideal for the sport.
The Harbour is steeped in swashbuckling history, being the site of colonial era barricade Nelson’s Dockyard, an important hub for the British during their 349 years of rule. A hundred years ago local workers were paid in beer and the
area was riotous, but now the dockyard zone is made up of pretty streets lined with pastel-coloured buildings and rambling flowers.
The English Harbour is overlooked by Shirley Heights, a mountain-top lookout point which is now the site of a weekly barbecue party for tourists. A local 12-piece band plays European chart-toppers with a Caribbean twist on steelpans, as people eat jerk chicken and ribs off the grill. Up there, among the Gods, the air feels electric and the scenery is stunning. No wonder the stingrays like it here.
Prestige World (0203 824 8444, www.prestigeworld.co.uk) offers 7 nights staying in The Inn At English Harbour from £2292 per person on a half board basis, staying in a Beach Cabana. Price includes breakfast, afternoon tea and dinner, plus return flights from London Gatwick to Antigua with BA & Virgin. Also includes Fastrack service on arrival, private airport transfers, taxes & 23 kg baggage. Upgrades to Premium, Club and Upper Class are available. Valid 5th to 31st January 2016 and 1st March to 10th May 2016, and is subject to confirmation at time of booking.