Hannah Stephenson and her son Will buddy up for a diving course in the Cayman Islands
“If you kiss a stingray, it means seven years good luck,” our genial skipper jokes before we tentatively enter the sea, amid what looks like giant flat mushrooms.
We’re in Stingray City, the most popular attraction of the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean, where these enormous, elegant creatures gather to be petted and fed chunks of squid by the hordes of enthusiastic tourists who come to see them every year.
It’s a unique attraction 20 minutes by boat from Grand Cayman, where vessels moor at a sandbank and invite passengers to mingle with the stingrays in the waist-high water. It’s controlled in that about 50 per cent of the rays are clipped (their stings removed) but uncontrolled in that it’s in open water, so anything is possible.
After initial trepidation and reluctance to walk on the sandbar in case we step on one, we are stroking the smooth underbellies of these gentle, gliding fish as they suck the squid from our hands into their powerful jaws.
My 16-year-old son Will and I have come to the Cayman Islands, a trio of islands in the British West Indies - south of Cuba and west of Jamaica - to dive, and specifically to pass our PADI open water certificate which, when completed, will allow us to dive to depths of 60ft without an instructor.
The Caymans - Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman - are ideal for learners thanks to their calm, warm waters, high visibility underwater, professional dive schools and English as the first language. They’re still a British territory, but most visitors are American.
Normally this PADI course takes between five days and a week but, as we don’t want to spend our holiday time in a classroom, we do a referral course, completing the theory via an e-learning course and pool work at home beforehand.
The computer-based study takes around 15 hours to complete, teaching you the basics of diving, section by section, with video illustration and multiple-choice tests. It’s followed by several pool sessions in the UK, then you complete the final four dives in the resort of your choice. Some dive operators only offer the PADI open water diving course to people who’ve already done the e-learning theory, so check before you book.
As we prepare for our first dive, our young Canadian instructor Devon tells us to look out for Kiki, a nurse shark with a scar down one side of her face, who may appear from nowhere and gently nudge up to you like a puppy, but never aggressively.
Devon says we’re also likely to see turtles - they are prolific around the Cayman Islands, which was originally called Las Tortugas (Spanish for turtles) by Christopher Columbus, who came across the islands in 1503.
Right on cue, as we plunge into the tepid waters at Governor’s Reef - no wetsuits needed here where the water remains between 82-85 degrees - we encounter a large green sea turtle foraging for food. We don’t, thankfully, bump into Kiki.
Grand Cayman, 22 miles long by eight miles wide, has other attractions - a turtle farm, native blue iguanas, horseback riding in the sea, kayaking and bioluminescence tours at Rum Point.