Southern Stingrays

southern stingray photo

Southern stingray (Dasyatis americana) glides along a sandy bottom near Little Cayman Island, Caribbean Sea

This last trip to Little Cayman was the first time I ever spent some decent time with Stingrays.   We saw them perhaps on 4 or 5 dives – essentially whenever we were diving near a sandy area.  One thing I was amazed with is the grace with which they glide over the sand, barely disturbing it at all.   Put a human diver kicking near the sand, especially ones that are not conscious of their body movements, and you usually end up with one big sand cloud.  With stingrays, hardly a particle was disturbed as they glided over the surface.

However, when they are searching for food, they know how to kick up a pretty good sandstorm!   When they are gliding over sand, they rely in their incredible sense of smell, combined with sensory features that allow them to detect changes in water current as well as electrical signals underneath them.   Clams and muscles tend to expel water changing the currents around them, as well as give off electrical signals.  The stingrays pick up on both of these things and stop when they sense something might be below the sand.

stingray finding food photo

A stingray searches for food below, Little Cayman island, Caribbean Sea

They can then agitate the water and sand beneath them to dig down to find prey.   This agitation kicks up quite a bit of sand underneath them as shown in the photo here.   I don’t know exactly how they do this.  But since they breathe by taking in water from the holes behind their eyes (spiracles), and expel it from their gills underneath, I would guess they also use this to also stir up the sand.

I found them to not mind my presence much.  For this photo of the one digging in the sand, I was laying on the bottom right in front of it with my 105 mm lens.   It allowed me to photograph from a distance away and not be too close to disturb the rays lunchtime.   However, it is really not the optimal lens to use for an animal this large.  It means you have to put quite a bit of water between you and your subject, which can result in reduced detail and color.   Fortunately southern stingrays are quite gray in color and I didn’t need to worry about using strobe lighting.

I did find another that was nearly completely buried in the sand, and slowly inched my way towards it on the bottom.  That enabled me to get this other closeup view of a southern stingray.   This is how they are typically found when they are resting.

southern stingray closeup

Closeup photo of a southern stingray buried in sand, showing only its eyes and spiracles, Little Cayman, Caribbean sea

I really enjoyed the time I had to observe these very interesting animals.  Their grace in swimming was another reminder how awkward human beings are in this environment.   (Something you are reminded of quite frequently by all sorts of aquatic life.)   Nonetheless, we have the ability to go into their world and observe.  Our presence is tolerated to some extent as long as we recognize we are in their world and under their rules.


southern stingray gliding over sand

A southern stingray glides across a sandy bottom near Little Cayman.


  1. Fantastic images. I’ll be in Grand Cayman this winter but don’t have the equipment to shoot underwater.
    Edith Levy recently posted..iPhone Friday – Higher EducationMy Profile

    • Sorry Edith, I just noticed today your comment was in my spam area of my blog. I don’t know why that happened. But a delayed thanks anyway! Will you be doing any snorkeling in Cayman? I just saw the other day a post about an u/w housing for an iPhone. :-)

  2. All fine images, but the last ray portrait is super. What an interesting animal…
    Tom Whelan recently posted..Eastern ForktailMy Profile

  3. I always thought that these were the most sleek and graceful fish in the sea. Beautifully photographed.
    ken bello recently posted..Reflections – pt 2.2 & report on NIK HDR Efex Pro 2.My Profile

  4. Great images, Mark – each reveals a different fascinating aspect of the animal. I’ve always loved rays – such sci-fi-looking creatures!

    — Jack

  5. Thanks much guys!
    @Tom – that is also my favorite.

    @Jack – these guys beat anything the SciFi channel has done in decades. :-)

    • Especially so since they became “SyFy”. No TechTV, no SciFi, not even Peter Lik on the Weather Channel – it’s no wonder I don’t watch TV any more!

      — Jack

  6. Wonderful photos of the “Rays,” Mark. and interesting post. They are among the most graceful of water creatures. However, I can’t help thinking about Steve Irwin, the “Crocodile Hunter,” every time I see one now.
    Earl recently posted..Venice, ItalyMy Profile

    • As I was swimming over the top of one, that popped into my mind Earl. It was not a thought of concern, but more wondering how the heck it happened. That barb isn’t exactly angled for piercing someone’s chest, showing what a freak accident it was.

  7. Stunning photography Mark. They are so graceful and sleek.

    Unfortunately I have never had the opportunity to see them in the ‘wild’ but only watched in sea life centers. Still spectacular and it is easy to see how you were so captivated by them.

    Thanks for sharing – Phil
    Phil recently posted..Low level photography – Nature PhotographyMy Profile

  8. Hi Mark, lovely photos. As you know I love rays :) Check out the stingray sandbar if you’re ever out in Grand Cayman. They come right up to you and if you can go when no one else is around occasionally you can see them schooling!
    scuba_suzy recently posted..Fun at the fake reefMy Profile

  9. The sea is a world so apart from mine it makes these images seem amazing. And, when you offer information about the life under the sea I become that eager student. I find it interesting how all animals adapt to the world around them. Man has found ways to visit these other worlds but not to live there. These are awesome images and I was surprise to know you took them with a 105 mm lens. You can show me more.
    Monte Stevens recently posted..Painted ToenailsMy Profile

  10. Amazing images and subjects Mark..thanks for sharing !!
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  11. Fantastic images, Mark. I especially like the one with the stingray nesting. I find that I really enjoy your forays into the underwater world.

  12. Great images and narrative of their behavior, Mark. It must have been a truly enjoyable experience being with the rays at such a close range.
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  13. These are really gorgeous images! I’ve snorkeled with rays in La Jolla and have been struck by many of the same things you describe here…they’re really unique animals.

  14. Steve and Greg, thank you very much.

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