Dive and water sports operators in Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands, reported no negative feedback or tour cancellations as a result of a freak accident in which Steve Irwin, Australia's khaki-clad wildlife star and spokesman, died from a stingray stab.

Irwin, known as the Crocodile Hunter, died Sept. 4 when a stingray's poisonous barb pierced him in the chest while he was filming an underwater documentary off the coast of Cairns on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

Stingray City in Grand Cayman, one of the most popular attractions in the destination for both cruise and land-based visitors, is a string of shallow sand bars that cross the North Sound.

Stingrays have gathered in the area for years to feed on the guts of fish cleaned by fishermen. In the late 1980s, divers started feeding squid to the stingrays.

Now, dozens of rays congregate each day looking for and getting handouts from the visitors who snorkel, dive or tour the area in glass-bottom boats.

Water sports and dive operators in Grand Cayman agreed that Irwin's death was a fluke accident by a normally placid sea creature.

Karie Bergstrom, president of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association, called Irwin's death "a tragic loss of a passionate environmentalist."

Steve Broadbelt, chairman of CITA's Watersports Committee, pointed out that "not all stingrays are the same, and there are about 200 species of stingrays."

He added: "Australia is home to some of the deadliest creatures on the planet. Many of their less harmful cousins live in the Caribbean and other parts of the world."

The barb in a stingray can take a long time to grow, according to Broadbelt. "It is thought that the use of this barb is only as a last resort in situations where the stingray fears for its life."

Broadbelt also pointed out that the effect of Irwin's death on local tour operators to Stingray City "is expected to be minimal. The short-term effect is more likely to be with snorkelers than with divers --divers tend to be more educated about marine creatures and have a better understanding of hazardous marine life."

The CITA official did, however, cite the need to regulate the procedures used by individuals at Stingray City, noting that the "manhandling of stingray and lifting them from the water is both cruel and dangerous."

Broadbelt called for implementation of recommendations "to protect and manage our stingray attraction."

Meanwhile, at Red Sail Sports, Sunset House Divers, Ocean Frontiers and Bayside Water Sports [all operators that offer trips to Stingray City], no cancellations were reported and each operator sent out at least three boatloads of tourists to Stingray City the day following Irwin's death.

Irwin's death triggered an outpouring of tributes within Australia and around the world.

Tim Fischer, chairman of Tourism Australia, said that Irwin "had done much to help the momentum of tourism in Australia."

Irwin was director of the Australia Zoo in Queensland; a popular figure on international TV for his handling of wildlife, especially the capture and relocation of crocodiles; and was known worldwide for his use of the catch phrase, "Crikey".

To contact reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to [email protected].

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