In Tatapouri on New Zealand’s East Cape, David Whitley gets up close and personal with stingrays
There’s something of an aquatic scrum going on in front of us. The plucky cormorant is on his own, but is diving between the increasingly aggressive kingfish with impressive bravado. It’s rather like a hyperactive child running between the legs of annoyed adults at the drunken stage of a wedding reception.
In the midst of all this mayhem, the real big boys of the bay are attempting to glide serenely around the trouble, and enjoy their meal in peace.
It’s these stingrays that we’re supposed to be feeding, but the ongoing feast has attracted interlopers. And they’re far more aggressive about going for the bait than the placid rays.
The chaps at Dive Tatapouri on New Zealand’s East Cape are keen to restore the formerly good reputation of the short-tailed stingray. Since the tragic death of Steve Irwin as a result of a toxic barb through the heart, these largely harmless beasts have developed an unwarranted reputation as killers.
“They’re incredibly good-natured,” says Dean Savage. “It’s extremely rare for them to be aggressive, and they’re absolutely fine around us.”
Dean started out by offering dive trips and fishing charters from his scenic little pad on the Pacific Coast Highway, but the stingrays have quickly become the most popular draw card.
The human-ray interaction at Tatapouri started by accident. At one stage, a crayfish depot sat just off the beach, and the used bait and scraps were left at the water’s edge. For the stringrays, this meant easy pickings. From there, says Dean, it was relatively easy to move them on to hand-feeding.
And that’s what a line of 15 visitors kitted out with deeply unflattering waders and bamboo staffs has signed up for.
The waders are to stop us from getting wet as we stand in the shallows, while the staffs are partly to help us walk out there. Mainly, though, they’re to stop the stingrays from sneaking round behind us.
Dean asks the group to stand close together with the staffs evenly space in front of us. This theoretically stops the rays from having contact with the waders, but all it takes is a small deviation from the military formation for them to start nuzzling at your shins like an over-affectionate Labrador.
The rays are probably more interested in what’s in Dean’s bucket than what’s in our waders, however. Big chunks of barracuda are on today’s menu, and Dean hands me a piece.
“Hold it out flat, as low as you can in the water,” he says. “And then just let the ray swim over it.”
Despite a couple of smaller eagle rays being rather keen, the 200 kilo short tail wins out. I rest my hand on the rock, just below the water’s surface, and it glides over my fingers.
Soon afterwards, my hand is engulfed, and the chunk of barracuda is sucked up. It’s somewhere between a vacuum cleaner taking in a ball of fluff and a UFO beaming up an unsuspecting earthling.
The ray stays long enough for me to give it a stroke. The skin is unbelievably soft – the texture feels like velvet.
“Pretty loveable, aren’t they?” says Dean as he hands over another chunk of barracuda. He also attaches a piece to the end of his bamboo staff, and the ray follows it around as the lure is slowly dragged through the water.
Whilst leading the ray on a wild goose chase, he asks us to look at the tail. “The barb is about one third of the way up,” he explains. “It’s razor sharp and full of toxins, but unless it gets you through the heart, it won’t kill you.”
He explains that pouring hot water on the site of impact is the best way to draw out the sting, but that this should never be necessary. “As long as you don’t try jumping on top of the ray, it’ll see no need to defend itself.”
The rays aren’t allowed to get reliant on the handouts. The feeding doesn’t happen every day, and sometimes won’t happen for a few days at a time due to weather conditions. It’s thought that 40-odd live in the immediate vicinity, and regularly come in for their free meal. But most of the time they have to fend for themselves, and compete with the kingfish.
And hand-feeding the latter is an altogether less elegant experience. Instead of the hover and hoover approach, the kingfish opt for pouncing like a shark on fish, fingers, the works. It’s a ferocious gummy nip from a fish not known for its placidity.
Despite their unfortunate killer image, the rays are absolute pussy cats in comparison.
Activity Details For Feeding Stingrays
Dive Tatapouri (+64 6 868 5153) operates from Tatapouri, approximately 14km north of Gisborne on New Zealand’s East Cape. The Stingray feeding experience costs NZ$40 per person and lasts up to two hours.