Heather Regan White

This past weekend, my mother, sister, niece, daughter, and I, traveled to the Kemah Boardwalk to spend a day with my niece’s girl scout troop. Eight girls between the ages of seven and nine, along with some intrepid mamas, boarded flying, spinning, jerking, and dropping rides in the gale force winds coming off the Gulf of Mexico, Saturday.

We took a train ride around the boardwalk and through a tunnel that seemingly depicted the aftermath of a western shootout, complete with “dead men” (much to the dismay of the girls). Afterward, we ate lunch while we listened to zydeco music.

After lunch, we queued up for the aquarium and bought paper containers of sardines to feed the stingrays. I had pet them before, as had most of those in the group, but none of us had fed them. And though the scouts’ motto is “Be Prepared,” we all failed to read the instructions mounted on a post near the stingray tank about how to interact with them.

For our first faux pas, we all reached into the tank and stroked the length of their bodies with our entire hands. We later read on the sign that you should stroke them with only two fingers.

Our second breach of etiquette came when it was time feed them. The sign, situated at eye level right near us, instructed that you curl your fingers and let a fish dangle between two knuckles so as to protect your fingers. We did not do this. Instead we offered sardines pinched between the fleshy tips of our fingers.

I’m still shocked that our third act of unintentional defiance toward stingray protocol didn’t have more serious consequences. None of us being overly familiar with stingray anatomy, we chose a flap that created a pocket along the sides of the stingrays, near the front, in which to insert the fish. The first few times I tried, the fish fell out of the “mouth.” Everyone else had the same results.

We wondered if perhaps they were too full, but they kept coming back, so we kept trying. In response to my sardine maneuver, one of the biggest stingrays shot off across the tank, leapt in the air, and began slapping the water. For future reference, stingray water does not smell good. We were all thoroughly soaked. This happened a few more times, and the girls began to tire of the stinky showers, so we went in search of the cleaning stations.

As I was leaving the exhibit, the instructional sign caught my eye. Particularly the diagram of a stingray, which would have been ever so helpful prior to the recent exercise. It dawned on me that our stingrays weren’t in the least bit grateful for the snacks. Likely because they hadn’t tasted a single sardine we doled out.

It turns out, despite our best intentions, we hadn’t been getting fish anywhere near the stingrays’ little mouths. Those leaps into the air were not of the joyful variety. The poor things have no hands and were likely trying to dislodge the fish from the flap.

I later researched stingray anatomy to see just where we were sticking the sardines. I’m still not quite sure what that opening was. It wasn’t a gill; those are on the top, or “dorsal” side,  of the body. And it wasn’t a mouth; those are on the bottom, or ventral side, right under their nostrils. I’d seen pictures of them smooshed against glass and they have the cutest little smiley faces. I don’t know why I didn’t remember that.

The only thing I can say with any degree of certainty is that we were closer to the mouth end than to the tail end.

Hopefully for the stingrays, other visitors inform themselves before picking random openings on those weird bodies and shoving in fish. And hopefully future visitors won’t be attacked by traumatized stingrays triggered by the sight of little-girl-sized hands.

It was a wonderful outing, (unless you were a stingray). I’m always grateful for time spent with my family. And, as a bonus, we all learned a lesson: Read before you feed.

If you want to chat, share a story idea with me or even holler (yell at me in all capital letters), drop me a line at sdneditorial@yahoo.com, attention Heather.