In the warm, turquoise waters of the Caribbean, Stingray City is a place where thousands of tourists come to commune with graceful stingrays in the Cayman Islands.
While the economy in many of the world's countries is tanking, the Cayman Islands are doing a booming business.
The stingrays are a hit.
Tourists spend millions of dollars to visit these beautiful creatures, according to Take Part. Each stingray garners $500,000 in tourism revenue yearly. Globally, wildlife tourism brings in $165 billion annually.
Snorkeling with one of these ancient creatures, the sunlight sparkling on its elongated pectoral fins as the animal glides through the water is enough to turn the most dedicated couch potato into a wildlife advocate. This reporter has spent countless hours with stingrays and these huge, rather flattened fish fly through the water as if they could teach birds a lesson or two.
Armed with packages of supermarket-bought squid, boatloads of tourists make their way out to Stingray City, a large sandbar off of Grand Cayman and large groups of rays have learned to wait for dinner. This is something they do not do in the wild.
Stingrays are normally solitary, according to Take Part. How are they handling life as tourist attractions?
"We'd love to be able to ask the stingrays how they feel about all of this," Dr. Bradley Wetherbee, of the University of Rhode Island said in the article. "Short of that, we can at least outfit them with microchips and see how their behavior is changing as a result of all the attention."
So Wetherbee got busy. He and his team of researchers from Nova Southeastern University's Guy Harvey Research Institute in Hollywood, Florida, conducted a careful, two-year study to better determine how the rays were faring.
What he found wasn't good news. Monitoring of the stingrays on the sandbar showed that the lifestyles of these creatures had changed drastically. They had even gone from being nocturnal (hunting for food at night) creatures to being diurnal (begging for food during the day.)
This is a complete reversal of normal stingray behavior, Wetherbee noted. While this particular species has been around for thousands of years, stingrays as a family have been around for millions of years. All during this time, they've been strictly nocturnal.
"There's a lot that goes into a nocturnal creature reversing their lifestyle biological clocks, hormonesÂ—all their physiology has evolved to be nocturnalÂ—and now they're just not," he said.
Among the other problems noted:
- Too much togetherness. The rays became actively aggressive towards each other. This is not surprising for an animal normally accustomed to being solitary.
- The animals' body composition had changed, and that's directly because of eating nothing but squid, something that wild stingrays rarely do.
- A separate study in 2009, in which blood tests were conducted, found that the animals suffered from weakened immune systems, making them more vulnerable to disease, according to an article in The Guardian. Stingrays that weren't disturbed by tourists fared better.
- Injuries by boats and problems with parasites due to overcrowed conditions were also common, the scientists found.
"These impacts can have long-term health effects, in terms of reduced longevity and reduced reproductive effort," said lead researcher Christina Semeniuk, an ecologist at Simon Fraser University in Canada.
This has prompted experts to call for tighter regulations on wildlife tourism, The Guardian mentioned. The impact of wildlife tourism on grizzly bears, penguins, sharks, lizards, and dolphins has also been studied.
"The majority of these studies have looked at changes in the animal's behavior or their stress responses," Semeniuk said. "Each has suggested that wildlife tourism should be both continually researched and managed."
Caution should also be used to make sure that efforts to control wildlife tourism are handled carefully, said Vincent Janik of the Sea Mammal Research Unit at St. Andrews University in the UK. Otherwise, if the tourists aren't there, then the hapless animals may be hunted or eaten.
"The best way is to educate the operators and the customers," he said, noting that the negative effects will likely be restricted to local populations of the animals.
Perhaps the problem can be summed up like this: People are animals, but animals aren't people.
The ocean isn't a petting zoo. No one needs to feed the gentle stingrays of the Caribbean; they can do that quite well on their own. People, especially children, should have the opportunity to see these marvelous animals in the wild. Watching creatures swim around and around inside a public aquarium, or watching them pace back and forth in a zoo isn't a beneficial experience for the animal or the child. A child's mind should fly free and uncaged, and hopefully, spend some time with real, live, wild stingrays.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons