I was waiting in the gym lobby yesterday, watching the TV as a shark shredded through a man’s left calf, part of a Shark Week special on shark attacks. The girl behind the counter grimaced at the dangling flesh left as a result of the shark’s razor sharp bite, while I bit my tongue, letting her fall prey to the sensationalism of these rare underwater attacks. I wanted to blurt, “I SWAM WITH SHARKS THIS YEAR AND IT WAS AWESOME!!” Because it was. And really, you’re more likely to be struck by lightning, fatally slip in your own shower, or even have your shoulder chomped by that cannibalistic soccer player from Uruguay than you are to succumb to Jaws. So let it be known, I swam with sharks this year, and it was awesome!
Ambergris Caye was the second destination of my 8-day trip to Belize. Accessible by small plane or boat from Belize City, we chopped across the Caribbean toward San Pedro on the upper deck of the Belize Express water taxi—Central America’s first class. Only eight of us privileged enough to bask in the sea spray and watch the sun disappear below the cayes: my travel companions, a local fisherman, the captain, and Joe, resident dive expert of Ambergris Caye. By the time we docked in San Pedro, Joe had arranged a private boat ride to the north end of the island to our treehouse accommodations as well as the next day’s excursion to the Belize Barrier Reef, just off the coast.
Rivaled only by the Great Barrier Reef, the Belize Barrier Reef is the largest reef system in the Northern Hemisphere, attracting divers and snorkelers from around the world. I am just a snorkeler, but on that particular day, with near perfect conditions and 70 feet of visibility, a mask and fins were all I needed. Our snorkel boat dropped its anchor in two spots along the reef. The first was Hol Chan Marine Reserve, the water calm, clear, and aquamarine like a postcard, the reef ecosystem abundant and lively. Two minutes into the snorkel, we were met by an unmistakable glare and distinguished underbite: barracuda. He was motionless, silver scales gleaming in the sunlight. Knowing his ability to accelerate and his affinity toward shiny objects, my elephant charm necklace and I kicked hard in the opposite direction, right into the invisible tentacle of a jellyfish that grazed my left tricep. My skin reddened and my nerves stung, but my throat didn’t swell and my breathing didn’t falter; only a Portuguese man o’ war would stop me from seeing the rest. I snorkeled on, and the ocean crackled in my ears.
Below us, two spotted eagle rays soared through a gap in the coral, black wings moving water without effort. Our snorkel guide knocked on the door of a green moray eel with an oversized conch, bared teeth and crossed eyes scared us off his porch and back to the boat, where a man-sized grouper was seeking shade under the aluminum hull. As we settled ourselves back in the boat, a neighboring snorkel guide lifted a three foot shark from below the surface, close enough for us to reach over the edge and touch its rough, taupe skin. It was a nurse shark, the species of shark found at the next snorkeling location: Shark Ray Alley.
I was relieved to know the sharks we were about to swim with were small and accustomed to human handling. But when the boat floated into Shark Ray Alley, a massive shadowy object crept along the ocean floor, a saltwater villain certainly more than three feet long. My heart dropped thirty stories. Another boat was chumming not far from us—another ten story drop, with only one place left to go: I leapt fin-first into the sea to fulfill a travel dream at the bottom of the ocean. Eyes wide open, we drifted with the current as nurse sharks and sting rays moseyed through the sea grass.
I swam with sharks, and it was awesome. And a Shark Week special on shark attacks couldn’t stop me from doing it a hundred times over.
Photo Credit: Sarah Brogden-Thome