Nurse sharks clamor around the side of the boat, swimming into and over one another splashing at the surface of the sea. I feel like I’m looking down into an aquarium. It’s surreal. We are tying up at Shark-Ray Alley to snorkel here. As the name suggests, the nurse sharks and southern stingrays are the main attraction.
Located just south of Belize’s renowned Hol Chan Marine Reserve, this is where fisherman used to clean their catch. The fish scraps tossed back into the water attracted sharks and rays, which in turn, attracted snorkelers and divers. It is now a protected area and it is the diving and snorkeling operators that bring the fish scraps, instead of the fishermen. The animals are attracted to the sound of the approaching boats, conditioned, like Pavlov’s dog, to know that food is coming. The guides throw pieces of fish into the water to create this feeding frenzy of sharks, rays and Big Eye Jacks.
After Rob got in, I jumped off the side of the boat into the warm, shallow, clear water. I always think its best to let someone else go first into a sea of predators…in a feeding frenzy. I swam around the front of the boat, ducking under the anchor line to watch the chaotic scene.
The nurse sharks here are shy. As soon as the food is gone, they are too. If I try to move towards them, they deftly move away. The rays hang around and the jacks school in the shade under the boat. The rays are much more comfortable with the people in the water and probably don’t need the food to make them tolerate us.
Our guide jumped in and hand-fed a ray a small morsel. Then they play. He cups his hand over the ray’s nose and the ray pushes him through the water. They spin and get separated. A person is no match for the agility of a ray. The ray turns and comes right back to the guide to re-engage him. They hook up again for another moment of paired swimming. The ray is so nimble and smooth in the water, the guide can’t keep up. They separate again. The ray now approaches Rob in the same manner. Unfamiliar with the etiquette of ray play, Rob quickly retreated. The ray spun around and moved on.
In the distant haze, a large school of sharks is patrolling along the bottom. Keeping their distance while waiting for the next boat. A remora joins the party, attaching the hull to rest a bit.
A new boat arrives causing the sharks and rays to leave us. We pull ourselves back into the boat for some fresh pineapple and drinks as we enjoy our ride back to town.