My birthday was just around the corner. I had just been laid off from another job in the publishing industry and decided I should nurse my wounds with a trip to the tropics. Middle age will do that to you. Sometimes you need to test your limits. Bora Bora looked promising, and soon a friend and I were headed over the Pacific on our spontaneous tropical journey.
When I travel, it’s usually pretty tame. Sure, there’s been the usual parasailing or snorkelling adventure, but hey, I was out of work, and flirting with retirement. There were no plans on the horizon. Time to kick it up a notch.
I looked through the list of available resort excursions and we decided to indulge in a shark and ray feeding to celebrate my birthday. I had done a number of water activities in the Caribbean, Mexico and Hawaii, but frolicking with sharks and rays? They’re carnivores!
What a way to celebrate a mid-life crisis. So what if I lost a few fingers in the process? I could return to the United States, minus a few digits, and have stories to tell for decades.
That morning, we climbed aboard the boat, some tourists wearing their bravado like a shiny sheriff’s badge. I was a bit nervous, despite the guide’s assurance that injuries rarely occur. My pulse began to quicken. Toto, I guess we’re not in Kansas anymore.
All the passengers snorkelled a bit beforehand to get acclimated to the water and the density of undersea life. Still, sharks and rays were on the agenda, and that’s a far cry from a clown fish.
As the boat approached the feeding area, our guide used a whistle, and soon I could see a swarm of rays headed our way, flapping and circling the boat like ominous bats in the water. I’m supposed to join them?
We donned the rest of our gear and got ready. Gradually, we were all ushered into the water to face the rays.
Thankfully, the water was only about 4-feet deep, enabling us to stand and face the little demons. Many tourists clenched onto the boat for support. The guide gave us some tiny fish, telling us to keep the bait flat in our palms, so that the razor teeth of the rays wouldn’t chomp at our fingers and give us a bloody manicure.
Of course, I was too excited to listen, and quickly, I got a small slice from a hungry ray, which ended up being my birthday reminder for the rest of the trip. Thankfully, the cut wasn’t too deep. Gotta listen to the guide, I reminded myself.
The rays increased their pace, snatching the fish from every outstretched palm, their barbed tails thrashing like angry swords through the water. A part of me wished I was playing volleyball on land, but it was too late to turn back. We were all a part of the frenzy now and I was determined to extract its full essence. The guide then lifted one of the rays out of the water so we could observe the barb and those razor teeth in greater detail.
Rays feel very smooth and soft, like supple leather. These guys were very gentle, since they are accustomed to these feedings and are comfortable in the presence of humans. But beneath that smooth exterior is a muscle machine that is a true work of nature. Watching them swim is like observing a large bird in flight, a true commander of its underwater terrain.
Then, we were ushered off to the sharks. We meandered to the other side of the boat, and soon, the black fins of the sharks were weaving toward us like storm-caught sailboats. Our guide recommended staying behind the yellow safety cord.
“Yeah, no problem,” I said under my breath. “Who wants to be chum today?” I whispered to my pal.
I could see the sharks doing their death dance, swarming back and forth, waiting for their feeding time when they could pounce on their prey. Thankfully, they weren’t great whites, but black-tipped reef sharks, which were also accustomed to this ritual. Still, a shark is a shark is a shark. I’ve seen JAWS too many times and believe me, you don’t want to mess with anything with a long snout and carnivorous teeth.
We stayed religiously behind the yellow cord, while the guide tossed chunks of bloody fish into the water. I pulled out my underwater camera and took aim. The sharks, spotting the food, escalated their pace, gobbling down the fish before making their turn and lancing at the chum again. All of this was taking place about a metre from where we stood. My heart pounded as I ducked underwater again and snapped away.
Clusters of other fish soon joined the sharks, creating a stew of colourful marine life. We were given peas, bread and other types of fish-friendly food for these hungry arrivals. Compared to the sharks, this was child’s play, but a welcomed respite from the adrenaline-packed frenzy created by the shark feeding.
Within about 40 minutes, the feeding frenzy was over. The circling sharks and rays had done their duty, returning to their daily regimen of undersea activities until the next naive batch of tourists arrived.
Safely aboard the boat, I was glad I had embarked upon this excursion. Getting outside your comfort zone makes memories, and this adventure would be a reference point for many years to come.