Stingrays and donkeys..oh, my!! The day began early with a morning excursion to Stingray City Antigua where you can swim with, hold and even FEED the stingrays! After a brief yet necessary orientation explaining how a stingray lives, breathes and eats (the better for us to treat them properly…first rule: do the stingray shuffle when you walk so as to not step on them!), we loaded the boat and headed out to the sand bar where they congregate. Yes, these are not stingrays in captivity, living in a large pen, these fellows live in the open sea but like most smart creatures, they’ve learned that if they come to the sand bar in the morning, they might get a treat.
The barbs (creating the ‘sting’) are in the tail and are a defensive mechanism only, not controlled by the muscles of the stingray so the only time you would get ‘stung’ is if you stepped or fell on them (thus the ‘stingray shuffle’ as they tend to lay just under the surface of the sand). As we arrived, we were given mask and snorkel if needed however the water is waist deep here and almost everything happens on the surface. As these beautiful and graceful creatures flowed around us (there seemed to be about a dozen varying in size from 2 to 4 feet across), there was ample opportunity for a picture holding one of these gentle giants of the sea….then came feeding time (for those brave enough)!
Feeding was quite simple, hold a small squid (dead, of course!) inside your fist loosely, keeping your thumb inside (you don’t want it to be mistaken for an extra tentacle!) and the stingray simply glides over your hand and with suction power Dyson would envy, sucks up the squid. Instant stingray treat! An added bonus was a small, beautiful reef to one side of the sand bar with lots of sea life to look at with the provided mask and snorkel. After about 45 minutes, it was back to shore where complimentary rum or fruit punch was available. As an avid snorkeler, I was a bit jaded going in but the professionalism of the staff and treatment of the stingrays made me a fan. I would highly recommend this excursion and at $50.00 US per adult, it’s a steal!
Our next stop was more sobering, the nearby Betty’s Hope, a 400 year old sugar plantation that archaeologists, local historians and volunteers have excavated and brought back to life so we can see firsthand the difficulties and life of a typical slave. A little honesty, I felt a great deal of “white man’s guilt’ as we toured the simple yet powerful interpretation centre housed in one of the buildings and outlining both the history of the site as well as sugar production in the Caribbean and its reliance on forced African manpower.
Facts like 10 million slaves being brought by force to the Caribbean and North America really made an impact. Perched atop a beautiful hillside it is both breathtaking and heartbreaking and the measly $2.00 US admission pays for the upkeep on something that should never be forgotten.
A quick roadside stop raised my spirits at the Bethesda Tamarind Tree, a place that helped me see that Antiguans have come a long way since the time of Betty’s Hope and that their freedom was hard won. The tree is located by fields in Bethesda near Willoughby Bay. It was under this tree that history was made by local sugar cane workers who banded together and decided to stop cutting sugar cane to demand higher wages in 1951. An employer of the sugar cane estates told the workers that he would let them starve before he would give them a raise. Showing their solidarity, all work was stopped and the workers spent months living off the land and sea in order to hold out. In the beginning of 1952 higher wages were met and the workers returned to cutting the cane. This historic site is a testament to the course of action and dramatic turn of events which changed the lives and economic conditions of Antigua’s people forever.
The final stop of the day was at the Antigua and Barbuda Humane Society which houses…a donkey sanctuary! Donkeys are not native to Antigua but were brought here for use in sugar production and as mills closed, the donkeys were simply released into the wild, creating a major problem for other crops (that they eat) and even homes (they can be very stubborn and destructive when they want something). The shelter currently houses about 150 donkeys but these are still several hundred at large on the island. Once captured they are brought to the shelter to live out their lives in relative care and comfort.
The sanctuary mascot is Stevie, a 17 year old blind donkey (get it? Stevie?) who received his malady after being stuck by a vehicle. He greeted us with a welcoming bray as our van rolled up and although it was feeding time, many donkeys were eager for some loving, especially the younger ones.
Admission is free but donations are accepted…better yet, adopt a donkey! For $25.00 U.S. per year you choose a donkey and receive a certificate of adoption to take home with you. A very worthwhile cause, I must say.
Tonight is our last here at The Verandah Resort and tomorrow we make the move to St. James Club on the other side of the island for our last 4 days. More to come…