Wednesday, August 18, 2004

(Hell, Turtles and Stingrays)

For those who have already read the entry from the tenth, I have added a few pictures that I got developed from the actual film camera I was using.

Today was Grand Cayman again, and it was my turn to go ashore. The lovely shore excursion manager got me a tour that included Hell, the turtle farm, and a snorkeling trip to Stingray City.

Hell is an interesting place, and is suitably located on Hell street. Of course, there are the required Hell jokes everywhere. The owner of the tourist stop there really hams it up (I was only actually able to be in the store for a short time), he dresses up as a devil, they yell out "Where in the Hell is the next customer," etc. The one thing that I was tempted to get there was a marriage certificate, which is (of course) a certificate for a marriage made in Hell. It just seemed fitting for a person or two that I know . . . you know who you are. :) Hell is an area that was under water but now isn't (there doesn't seem to be any explanation for why it isn't underwater now, nor does there seem to be any worry about the water returning). It is made from a lot of coral that started being eaten by a microorganism that leaves a black excretion after it eats. It doesn't eat the calcium (which, actually, is white), so the resulting shapes are random and very rough. It would be cooler-looking if they hadn't stuck all of these really cheesy cut-out demons around in it. I think that if I was going to make it look more hellish, I would have put little flame spurts around (kind of like small versions of the flames on each side of the wizard in The Wizard Of Oz). I have heard that there is a nightclub on the other side of it that lights up the area with cool lights at night, which I think would probably look eerie and nifty, but we don't get to stay that long.

Now my assumption was that the name derived from the bleakness and danger to people trying to walk through the area. However, that would be too obvious. It turns out that a fairly famous British person was trying to take a picture of a bird sitting on one of the black chunks of coral. He mis-stepped, didn't get the shot, and exclaimed, "Oh Hell!" They decided upon hearing this that it would make a good name for the area. I didn't say that it was a GOOD story . . .

Our next stop was the turtle farm (I was hoping that they would sell turtle soup at the snack bar, but alas, it was just burgers and such). It turns out that everyone in the area pretty much had hunted the green-backed turtles to extinction. It was decided that they would make a kind of dual-purpose farm. They release around 30,000 turtles a year back into the wild. They sell the rest to be used for meat, jewelry, and other turtle-related uses. Now this sounds a bit cruel, to be selling an endangered species in this way. However, the consequences if they didn't would be that people would hunt down the released turtles and negate the whole process. So, the sell them cheaply enough that it really isn't worth people going after the ones in the wild, and they use the money to repopulate the species.

All around, it is a pretty good deal. They won't sell anything to tourists, since owning turtle jewelry and such is illegal in the U.S., and it would be tough to prove that you had acquired it legally. The egg-laying turtles are put in a large part of the beach that is walled off. Because the temperature of the sand is what determines the sex of the turtles (and because nature can be a bit harsh), the eggs are collected out of the sand after they are laid and brought into a building to incubate. If they are kept right at a certain temperature (between the two temperature ranges for the different sexes), then there ends up being an equal number of males and females. These babies are then put into small tanks, and as they grow they are put into bigger tanks. Some of these are used for the public to be able to come pick them up and take pictures. They tend to do a bit of a wild swimming-in-midair routine when you pick them up, but if you scratch under their chin, they calm right down (I would have thought that being picked up and then scratched a hundred times a day would end up preparing them and they would get calmer, but apparently they have quite a short attention span). Oddly enough, they don't try to run when you go to pick them up.

When the turtles get big enough to be a little dangerous and heavy to pick up, they are put into the biggest tanks. The whole place is situated on a beach, so they constantly pump in water from the ocean and let the tanks run back out, so the water is always relatively clean. The turtles are fairly packed in the tanks, and often you will see them swim into the rush of water coming from the ocean to kind of surf, Finding Nemo-style. They really don't seem to mind being touched, and they all clamor to be on the edge (on top of each other, and leaving the center of the tank practically empty). In most places this is because people are feeding them, but here their diets are strictly regulated, and they don't let people feed them.

One last note before moving on is about their marking system. I found this somewhat fascinating. They take a small chunk out of the bottom of the turtle's skin, which is light-colored. The they place it in some way on the shell, and it grafts itself into the shell. It continues to live and grow with the shell, and ends up being a type of organic tattoo. They put it in a different line of the shell each year, so that you can look at the spot on any wild turtle and know which year that it was released. I thought that this was a great way of marking them, even if it IS a bit embarrassing for the turtles (but not as much as a tag around their ankle).

Our last stop was a powerboat that would take us out to Stingray City. Now, this island's formation is kind of interesting. I don't know how it came about, geology-wise, but it is basically a VERY tall plateau in the ocean. So, Stingray City is only waist-deep, as well as most of the beach area around the island. The land is just a tiny bit higher (thus the formation of Hell). If I had walked/swam another 50 yards past our boat, it drops to 1,000 feet. Two miles past that and it drops another 2,000 feet. Because of all of the coral and shallow depths, the cruise ships can't pull up to the island. However, the place where they anchor is only a couple hundred yards out, and the ships are sitting in water over 1,000 feet deep. It is crazy.

Stingray City became a really popular dive/snorkel site quite a long time ago. There were just a LOT of stingrays there. After divers started taking people there and feeding them, the population increased even more, and the rays became MUCH more friendly. Now there is a lot of cry about what it is doing to the ecology of the area, but they really don't know what to cry about. It doesn't seem to be hurting anything, there isn't any chance that the tours will soon stop (leaving the rays helpless to eat on their own), and they don't know WHAT is bad about everything going on. They just know that SOMETHING isn't right. So, they have finally lobbied for the tour operators to take limited amounts of food, and there is a bit of regulation of how much total food is taken to them each day. I'm not sure what this will accomplish, and neither are they, but at least they feel that something is being done.

I have always loved watching rays, they are just so incredibly graceful in the water. These are looking for food, so they tend to nuzzle up against you and get underfoot, kinda like a cat that is waiting to be fed. It was often really hard not to step on them. It is really cool to watch, though, and I stayed under to look at them for the entire allotted time. Eventually they started to move on to new boats (which had more food), but some hung around the whole time. The tour operators would scoop one up from time to time and hand it to a child or adult to hold for a picture. One little girl held one for quite some time. You just kind of cradle your arms, and as they move to one side you move with them. It was really cool.

We finally came back to the boat, and I had a restful afternoon until our crew party. I'd love to say that this one was a lot better than the last, and that lots of people came . . . but I would be lying in a most exaggerated way. There were less than half of the people of the last party, and at the height of the party there were a total of four people on the dance floor. It was really disappointing. :(