I have a metaphorical fear of sharks.
I have grown up hearing phrases like, “Get out of the pool with the sharks!” in reference to keeping your finances in order, and staying away from predatory lending/creditors – or in fact, staying away from bad business in general.
Sharks are the anthropomorphic bad dudes; beings who care nothing for your soul, who only want to take, take, take. Being called a ‘shark’ is being labeled all that is greedy and predatory in man.
I watched live sharks circling, during one of my many junior club visits to the Baltimore Aquarium. I stood, pressed against the thick plexiglass, looking into their staring, dilated eyes, pre-teen-eeewwing over what looked like hamburger meat coming from the gill slits on the sides of their heads.(It was in reality, part of their gill structure.)
As a result, I was scared and disdainful of the them. When it came to actual live shark behavior, I knew very little.
That was until today.
E-Z Boys Tours of Caye Caulker hosted us, (the Simmons family) along with our new friend Joanna Arellano of the Caye Caulker Plaza Hotel, to a day trip around the Caye Caulker Marine Reserve. It was meant as a meet-and-greet with the reef’s most sought after residents. The Marine reserve covers a huge aquatic area just off the east and north coast of the island. Animals and plant life are protected from fishing: boats entering must be licensed and have certified tour operators on board.
It is home to nurse sharks, turtles and sting rays, along with thousands of other forms of marine life.
As we headed out to sea, our captain, a local guide named Ian announced, “First stop: to see my shark friends!”
A wave of Hollywood panic came over me. This provided me with a healthy pump of adrenaline that was tempered by my commonsense and trust that this company would not want to put us in harm’s way. The warmth of the air and azuline blue of the sea calmed us as we made our way to the shallows
The boat tied up in a flat that allowed the adults to stand and get in with the girls. We geared up, jumped in, and were swarmed by a count of eight nurse sharks and twenty rays. I took a hold of Ellie, Mark of Ava, and our host Joanna began snapping pictures.
Ian demonstrated how the nurse sharks have a powerful sucking force that allows them to clean out crustaceans and mollusks. He placed a small piece of bait in an empty conch shell and the sharks hovered over, scooping out the meat by placing their small mouths over the shell opening. Sand that had been sucked in puffed out through their gills.
Our science fascination and not our fear, allowed Ellie and I to get close. Mark and Ava hung back, admiring the sharks from a distance, taking in the angelic rays and fish.
“These sharks are bottom feeders. They like clams, lobsters, conch and small fishes they can suck up.” said Captain Ian. Ellie announced, “Oh, they don’t want to eat us? They must be vegetarians!”
Ian picked up one for us to touch and see at close range. Its skin was like a sandpaper leather. We marveled that the shark was allowing this man to hold it like a baby.
“We treat the animals kindly and with respect. We show people how to have respect for them and then the animals know they can trust us not to hurt them. Its really true.”said Ian.
The sharks like to perch on their fins and create a ‘false house’ for aquatic passers-by. Once settled in, the shark hoovers up the residents, getting a nice meal and opportunity for new tenants.
The rays like the sharks, proved gentle. They swirled around us like pancake shaped cats. (I used this description to ease the kid-squealing tension with laughter.) With Ian’s help, we touched a ray and laughed at how it felt like smooth jello.
The nurse sharks and rays were gentle , thrilling ambassadors of the reef. Captain Ian was right: once we learned to love them, we would want to do everything to protect them and keep them safe.
Next Stop with E-Z Boy Tours: A Belizean Island BBQ on Goff’s Caye with Captain/Chef Ian.
Kristin Fuhrmann Simmons