Monday, April 23, 2012

Feeding wild stingray on the Eastern Cape

I can’t take any credit for this one - I usually do my research and work out what there is to see and do in an area, but ultimately we were in Gisborne to meet up with friends and have a few days of bach time - relaxing and enjoying good food and wine while taking advantage of the ocean on our back door step. I gave the guide book a quick once over and didn’t even google what there was to see and do in the area, so when our friends asked us if we would like to feed stingray, it sounded like an excellent idea!

We headed over to Dive Tatapouri, which is located on the edge of a shallow reef which sits immediately off the shore, on the beautiful Eastern Cape coastline. It was only a few minutes from our bach and approximately fifteen minutes from the centre of Gisborne. When we arrived, the adults and older child (age six) were kitted out with some rather fetching waders and long bamboo sticks, before being given instructions and a safety briefing. They told us about the rays we would likely see - the resident short-tail stingray and the much larger eagle rays who live further out at sea, but come in for feeding, given it is a regular occurrence. They showed us how to use our bamboo poles to create a fence to protect ourselves, should we need too (eek!). They also warned us about the kingfish, who it seemed were also rather partial to the bait we would be feeding to the rays, and rather quicker in the water.

Don't you wish your family was hot like us!

Then the kids were set astride a giant banana boat, which our guide hauled behind him on a rope while the rest of us (probably about 12 people in our group, excluding our three little ones) followed across the reef in single file. Having never worn waders before, walking through the water in them was a novel experience, with a constant sense of foreboding every time you stepped into a patch of water any deeper than the top of the welly boot bit, although I needn’t have worried as my feet stayed perfectly dry for the duration. The bamboo sticks proved an absolute necessity within seconds of being in the water- for testing the depth of the water ahead  (mainly as our supposedly single file line suddenly resembled more of a web, almost as soon as we hit the wet stuff) and secondly for keeping us upright as we waded over the slippery rocks.

Walking across the reef in a single file line, ahem....

Kids on the banana boat - they were all from our group - there were some older kids on our tour too who walked across

We stopped at the far side of the reef and stood on a rock in a couple of inches of water, while the guide stood in front of us and shook his bait pot in the water. It didn’t take long for the short-tail stingrays to appear, along with the enthusiastic kingfish. Our  children were still bobbing on their banana boat a few metres in front of us, and watching their little faces light up as they spotted and recognised the marine life appear around them was a magical moment.

Our guide handed out bait and we took it in turns to bend down and feed it to the stingrays. It was a tricky manoeuvre, bending forward while balancing on the rock, holding the bait so that the stingrays could sweep over your hand to reach the bait with their mouths below, all while avoiding a nip from the eager jaws of the waiting kingfish. I was cautious at first, especially after the boy standing next to me wasn’t so lucky and the kingfish managed to swoop in over the stingray and give him a nasty nip as it whipped the bait from his hand. The speed that kingfish moved will most likely ensure he never ends up as sashimi.

The eagle ray weren't shy with our guide!

Touching and feeding the wild stingray was a unique tactile experience - they had a slightly slimy, vaguely bumpy cartilage feel to them, and as the bait is sucked up out of your hand it could only really be likened to a run in with a low powered Dyson.

The ray's mouth is really far back - look how far it went up his arm! 

When the little kids tired of being on the boat (it took a surprisingly long time) they were brought onto the rock with us and touched the rays too. We’d been out on the water for around 90 minutes, but all too soon we were making our way back to shore and it felt like we’d been out there for just minutes.

The guide placed bait in the end of his bamboo pole to encourage the rays to come to where we could feed them

I’ve seen and touched rays in aquariums a few times, but feeding them in the wild was different - this is one of my favourite things about New Zealand - we have been presented with so many opportunities to see wildlife which we may be able to see in zoos or aquariums elsewhere, but here we can see them in their natural environment; no bars or glass between us and them, little or no stress on the creatures involved, and often we can get much closer than we would be able to in captivity.

The beautiful coastline where the reef is situated

What did we think of our stingray experience? Let the Littlest Hobo tell you….


  1. what happened? you've been gone for what 3 months and the Littlest Hobo has grown sooo much. She is so adorable, I can't stand it. Sounds like you had a great adventure - good for you, not sure I would like the look of those sting rays climbing up my leg and you are right, that picture is HOT, jealous! He he he....
    so glad you're having such fun and can't wait to Skype soon xxxxx from all 3 of us

    1. Tell me about it, practically a teenager! I wasn't too sure about the sting rays when I actually got out there and saw how big they were; I was happy to look and touch, but it took a bit more encouragement to get me to feed one. It was cool once I gave it a try though. I'm considering investing in a pair of waders as a permanent wardrobe choice, what do you think? :) xxxx

  2. Feeding the rays looks cool, but Kingfish? Those things can get pretty big can they not? Not sure how I'd feel about my arm going that far inside a ray's mouth either. You're a whole lot braver than I, but more power to you.

    1. The kingfish were pretty scary! With the rays, you didn't put your hand far into their mouths, it's just that their mouths are really quite far back on the underside of their bodies. It took 3 attempts for me to do it without whipping my hand out before the big moment :)

  3. So love that look!! Feeding the sting rays would be the best experience ever....did you have to worry about their stingers?
    Will listen to the video later (hubby is sleeping at the moment before work tonight!)
    Amazing that you were all allowed so close to the sting rays, the kingfish would be scary :)

    1. They warned us which areas we could touch on the rays so that they didn't feel like they were being attacked and get defensive. The little ones only had one barb, but the big ones had three each! A couple of times when they swam around so that their tails were facing us I moved back.