Every island has its living legends and here on Grand Cayman, Captain Marvin Ebanks stands tall and proud as one of the most impactful in recent history.
Born on 27 September, 1916, Capt. Marvin was part of a large family of four boys and four girls.
Capt. Marvin is regarded as the pioneer of the famous Stingray City and was recognised in the February 2013 Cayman National Cultural Foundation’s annual Arts & Culture Awards. He received the Gold Heritage Cross – the organisation’s highest award for a lifetime of work that has contributed in a meaningful way to the country’s cultural heritage.
The world famous tourist attraction of Stingray City is not a city at all but rather a shallow sandbar in the middle of Grand Cayman’s great North Sound. It is accessible only by boat and as Capt. Marvin says, it developed “accidentally” by local fishermen stopping to clean their nightly catch of fish. After a time, the stingrays became so friendly that visitors to the Island were invited to share in the experience.
From extremely humble beginnings back in the 1950s, Capt. Marvin built and developed one of the largest water sports businesses in the Cayman Islands. The business remained focused on Stingray City charters and lunch trips, with lunch consisting mainly of the ‘catches of the day’ prepared right on the beach in front of his guests.
This personal touch, which was so characteristic of Caymanians of that era, drew a large following of repeat clientele, who considered it an integral part of their annual visits to Grand Cayman.
Over the years, Capt. Marvin has received various recognitions and awards for his role as an outstanding ambassador in the tourism industry. He has been featured in Skindiver magazine and he was inducted into the Scuba Diving Hall of Fame.
Now at 96 years of age, Capt. Marvin is no longer actively involved in the business but loves to reflect on the 80 or so years when the sea was like his oxygen-supplying life-blood.
Sitting at home in Governor’s Harbour with him and his daughter Jackie, on a balmy Saturday evening with a light breeze blowing in from across the North Sound, one is quickly drawn into the conversation and the feeling of ‘being at sea’.
“I grew up on the sea”, Capt. Marvin says. “I worked with my father from the time I was eight years old. We’d go fishing in the morning and again throughout the night. The only time I wasn’t fishing was when I went to school — Bosun’s Bay in the afternoon. I did that until I was 14 years old and then went to work turtling – going to the Miskito Cays to catch turtles in Nicaragua to bring back here to sell. That is how we helped the family make a living.”
As we continued to discuss the lifestyles of Caymanians, young and old, nearly a century ago, he went on to explain how plentiful things were at one time. For example, how they would stop at the shallow sandbar in the North Sound to clean their catch, since there were too many mosquitoes awaiting them on the land. With good reason for completing their task in the middle of the ocean, cuttings were thrown over to the eagerly awaiting hungry rays, which too, were in abundance.
“There were all kinds of rays then, eagle rays, leopard rays and manta rays but after it got a lot of people, the big ones left and went deep,” he explained.
Conchs and lobsters also abounded and the fishermen could easily haul in 500-600 conchs per day, simply to get the shells.
“There was big demand for the shells, which were being sold and shipped to Tampa, Florida for use in jewellery making. The ladies just loved the conch shell jewellery,” he added wistfully. “There were lots of conchs all over the place. I would say you could load a dory full in less than an hour, if you were a good diver, and they were conchs as big as they ever grow – big, full-grown, big broad-leaf conchs. A lot of women wanted the conch shells to put around their yard for beautification.”
In 1951, Capt. Marvin took his first tourists to snorkel the North Sound hot spot and this was the beginning of what would grow to become one of the Island’s largest water sports operations.
“The first tourists came in sailing boats from the United States. They would drive around the Island for a while and then wonder what else there was to do. I suggested they come out in my boat. There were lots of lobster, conch and fish and we started making lunch on the beach. We didn’t have masks or snorkels; we used what was called a ‘water-glass’ (a container with a glass bottom) and what we’d see down there, we’d dive it up.”
Capt. Marvin, whether knowingly or unknowingly, is a proclaimed Cultural Ambassador for the Cayman Islands on the whole and particularly, in the tourism industry.
“I keep doing this because I like it. And I have a lot of repeat customers. I’ve been doing this so long that if some people come on the boat and I’m not there, they’re disappointed. Some of them have been going out with me for over thirty years.”
When asked about how the business developed over the years, in a time when Cayman was still considered remote with no electronics and telecommunications, the humble captain says it was mostly due to word of mouth referrals.
“At first way back yonder I used to go around the hotels and tell people what I did. I’d go around until 10 or 11 o’clock at night. There were so many mosquitoes at night back then I could grab them by the handful.”
His daughter Jackie remembers when she and her siblings, as small children, accompanied their father on nightly visits to the old Galleon Beach Hotel, where the Westin Casuarina Resort is located today.
“He would pack us into the old station wagon and we would head up there with just some very simple, white business cards and hand them out to every guest we saw.”
Over the years, Capt. Marvin has seen unprecedented repeat guests because of his knowledge of the seas, and his commitment to providing warm Caymanian hospitality to every one he meets. “They would tell their friends and also in the hotels and condos, they would give good write-ups about their trips with me; they would tell them that it was a ‘must-do’ thing on their vacation to Cayman.”
He speaks wistfully about the changes that have come over the years and knows that the clock will not be turned back. “Aye, how times have changed. Stingray City, in about the late 1980s, started getting a bit crowded. When the cruise ships came, then you could call Stingray City a real city because you could find a thousand people out there. Sometimes you can’t find a spot to drop anchor!” However, he encourages all of the tour operators to maintain that good, helpful spirit that grew the tourism product to what it has become. “They will continue to come as long as we make them feel welcome,” he says.
Six years ago, at age 90, Capt. Marvin retired from active involvement in the water sports business that he founded. He credits his longevity to hard work and maintaining a clean and wholesome lifestyle. “I’ve raised 15 children from two loving wives and more grandchildren than I can count — think it’s about 40 or so now. My first wife died, but the Lord blessed me with another wonderful woman who I loved dearly until she passed away. I do what’s right and serve the Lord. I’m proud of my kids and thankful they have kept the business going. The sea is what I know — it’s spared my life several times over. It’s been good to me.”
These sentiments are echoed by Jackie, who is very proud to add that the business founded by her father now employs his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “In these times of hardship and high unemployment, it is good to be able to provide work for them.”
As the minutes, then hours gradually slip away, I realise that I have been transported to another time, another place, in the history of ‘the Islands that time forgot’ and for a moment, I wish I could stay there, just sipping on the tall, cool glass of lemonade and listening to this great man of the sea.
As I say good bye and get ready for the return ride home, I am warmed by his words of concern, “drive careful now, the rain is coming down”, as he gently waves me off.
I take a deep breath and a long sigh escapes my lips. Yes, I had indeed been in conversation with a real, living, breathing hero of a man; a great Caymanian legend, Captain Marvin Ebanks.