Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Conch City

There are some things that are touristy which are well worth skipping, and then there are things that are touristy that are just brilliant.  Stingray City in the Cayman Islands is one of the latter.

I've been traveling to Cayman since 2003, before Hurricane Ivan which devastated the island, but have never made it to Stingray City before a few days ago.  Some times it was the weather, others were due to something else.  I'd just never made it however Nick said he had a spare ticket and asked if I'd like to join him and Elaine (and a bunch of others too) for a morning's outing.

The weather wasn't great, very wavy with the wind coming in from the North East, just the wrong position for the visit… but that wouldn't stop the trip from going ahead.  It just wouldn't be as calm as the photos.  In fact it would be downright rough.

The trip with Captain Marvin's would visit a site near North East Breaker to dive for conch, the second site would be the Sea Gardens… a bunch of reefs nearby… and the final trip would be on the sandbar that is Stingray City itself.

Now I like conch.  Its a shellfish, probably a large mollusk like a whelk as opposed to a crustacean like a shrimp or lobster, and is just lovely in a variety of ways.  My favorite being conch salad, a raw presentation including chillies and lime juice that I was introduced to back in the 1980's back in the Bahamas.  In Cayman they call it either ceviche or marinated conch but tastes just as good.

The dive site was no more than 15 feet deep and a pure sandy bottom.  I snorkeled for a bit but couldn't see a single conch -- they are as big as a rugby ball and pink, so really should stand out.  However when I hopped back on the boat I saw that it was just I that was incompetent as there was simply loads of conch shells onboard.  The boat crew said we needed only 4 or 5 but there was more than double that amount.

The conch harvest

Fortunately for the conch, or at least some of them, only the 5-year olds and older are fair game.  Others get thrown back.  The way you tell is that the edge of the shell (the 'fan') has to be big and extending out beyond the something or other which looks like a big nobble on the shell (I can't describe it any other way).  The crew could tell and only worked away on the big 'uns with a claw hammer and sharp knife.

The claw hammer technique.  The crew scrub the empty shells and sell them to tourist stores.  They really are a beautiful pink color when scrubbed and cleaned off with bleach.

You bash the shell gently with the back bit of the claw hammer, enough to make a gouge that enables you to stick a sharp knife inside to cut the muscle holding the conch to the shell, and then you pull the poor creature out.

Big, eh?  Lots of guts, goo and slime before you get to the good stuff. There's a long clear string like membrane that looks like fishing twine which the boat crew said was great for male 'strength'.  He offered it around but it was declined by we wimp tourists.

They are bigger than you think and after all the trimming of the guts, goo and slime, there is a white piece of conch about the size of a chicken breast.  It is this that goes to make the conch salad.  Yummy!

Stingray City itself is no bigger than a small sandbar and on the day we went it was chocker block with 4 or 5 boats crammed full of tourists all of whom were feeding the rays with squid, cuddling them and in some cases kissing them.

A calmer and quieter day by the look of it.

The rays were big, probably 6 to 8 feet wingspan so pretty sizable.  If you had a denizens of the deep phobia, you'd have the screaming abdabs.  Fortunately I didn't.  Their skin at the top is rather leathery but underneath they are soft and yielding.  Really weird feel actually particularly when the boat crew picked one up and draped it over your back and head!

I'd love to go back when its less crowded and calm.  This was brilliant!

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