It's not often that a tourist site makes for a great Cayman dive site for underwater photography. But world famous Stingray City is more than a tourist trap for souvenir snaps. It’s a must for any underwater photographer looking to capture dramatic images of stingrays gliding through sun-drenched water.
Located on the north side of Grand Cayman island, Stingray City brings underwater photographers face to face with dozens of southern stingrays. The site has its origins in the 1970s, when fishermen would use the protected cove to clean their daily catch and feed a stingray or two. Today, the tradition continues as the rays are drawn in with the promise of a squid snack from dive operators.
The Dive Plan
Stingray City is actually composed of two separate sites. “Stingray City” is a shallow dive site, around 12 feet deep. It’s probably the easiest dive you’ll ever go on: Just drop down onto the sandy bottom and wait for the rays. The dive leaders will organize the divers into a ring, while the stingrays come in to mingle in exchange for a few bites.
Perhaps the best photographic opportunities come at “Stingray Sandbar,” a shallow ridge in the middle of Grand Cayman’s North Sound. Calling the Sandbar an iconic dive is a bit of a misnomer—it’s not a dive, not even a snorkel. Rather, you can stand in waist-deep water (3–5 feet depending on the tide), while the stingrays come right up to the surface. They’re ideal conditions for spicing things up with split shots, sun bursts, and dappled light.
DSLR and interchangeable-lens users will want to mount their widest lens for Stingray City. With a fisheye lens, you can include more stingrays into the frame. Using your largest dome port also opens up the opportunity to capture over-under images of the stingrays below and the sky above. Compact and fixed-lens shooters will need a fisheye wet lens in order not to chop off part of the subject from the frame, as most of the rays will come right up to the camera.
While Stingray City is generally drenched with sunlight, having a strobe (or strobes) is useful for helping to illuminate the underside of the rays and the sand. Additionally, if you want to take split images, you’ll have to close your aperture to increase depth of field and darken the bright top half of the frame. The strobes will bring light and detail back onto the rays.
In terms of dive equipment for the Sandbar, make sure to bring a weight belt to make it easier to stay level with the rays, especially if your dome port is positively buoyant. A mask and snorkel will allow you to actually look through the viewfinder, rather than shooting “from the hip.”
Tips and Techniques
The great thing about the Sandbar is that there’s always a ton of subjects, so it comes down to experimenting with your framing and settings. However, there are some basic tips you can follow to help pave the way.
For the Stingray City dive site, resist the urge to face into the ring where the dive master is attracting the rays. Instead, face outside the ring and wait for the rays to come past—this will eliminate other divers from the frame and limit the amount of backscatter.
The Sandbar is probably the better opportunity to produce unique stingray images. The first thing you can do to improve your images is go out with a small operator, rather than a cattle or tourist boat. These larger operations have to worry about cruise shippers, while dive masters with smaller companies have more experience with underwater photographers and will go out of their way to help you nail the shot. Ask your dive master to use a piece of squid to help lure the rays right up to your dome port. Alternatively, you can also attach a chunk of squid to the top of your housing to attract the rays.
There are often more rays in the water than you can photograph on a single trip, so it’s best to focus on just a couple rather than being overwhelmed by the scene. If you visit the Sandbar during prime hours, there will likely be a lot of other people in the water around you. This requires you to be more conscious with framing the images so as not to include people in an otherwise nice image.
Although expensive, it can be worth chartering a boat to take you out to photograph the stingrays at sunrise. You can even try to gather a group of underwater photographers to help split the cost. Not only will the site be void of any other people, but a stunning sunrise and purple clouds make for a spectacular top half of the frame in an over-under image. If you find yourself at the Sandbar during sunrise, make sure to bring a focus light and strobes, as the water will still be dark. It may be early, dark and damp, but Stingray City at dawn is a can’t-miss opportunity for any underwater shooter.