The shark is lying languorously in the arms of your snorkeling guide who holds it like a cat while you are petting it. Except that it’s four feet long. The skin feels like rubber covered with a layer of sandpaper. It is a rich reddish brown, but lighter on the belly, which is where the shark seems to enjoy being scratched.
The shark makes no move to resist, but when the guide releases it, it lazily flicks its tail — just once — and gently disappears into the very blue waters of Shark Ray Alley in Belize’s Hol Chan Marine Reserve, just off Ambergris Caye.
All the dive shops in Ambergris Caye run snorkeling trips here, but the guide from Tranquility Bay Resort (which specializes in diving and fishing trips), seems especially adept at catching sharks by their fins. He also has a sense of humor: To make the generally recognized diver’s sign for “look, there’s a shark,” he puts his hand perpendicularly against his forehead. To tell us that it’s a nurse shark, he pretends to grab his non-existent breasts.
Say the word "shark," and a thousand bloody images come to mind: “Jaws,” of course, as well as rare but memorable news stories from Australia, California, Florida and South Africa, where great whites sometimes mistake a human for a seal with deadly and newsworthy results. (To put this in perspective: The International Shark Attack File estimates that for every human killed by a shark, 10 million sharks are killed by humans.)
Most sharks, however, are just fish that eat other fish ... or seals or walruses. Or, with some species, plankton and krill. They range from tiny sand sharks all the way up to the whale shark, which at 50 feet in length, is the largest fish in the sea.
Swimming with the giant whale sharks is gaining in popularity, in part because these spotted behemoths have predictable migration patterns, so tour operators can reliably find them. And they are relatively safe to swim with because they feed on microscopic plankton krill, and algae.
Whale sharks are found in oceans worldwide; in the Americas they migrate near the Yucatan peninsula every August, where they are called “dominos” in reference to their spots. Operators in Mexico and Belize offer trips where divers can swim with these gentle giants.
The South Pacific is another hot-spot area for a variety of sharks, including (most commonly) lemon sharks and gray, black-tipped, and white-tipped reef sharks, most of which range in size from five to eight feet. Bora Bora offers a number of shark dives and snorkeling trips. Divers either arrive by cruise ship (the Pacific Princess makes a tour around the Polynesian islands; its shore excursions include dives where shark sightings are likely) or stay at one of Bora Bora’s famed resorts, the Four Seasons.
Dive operators stack the odds by chumming. At some dive sites, in fact, the sharks are so used to associating boat arrivals with chum that they arrive just as divers are preparing to get into the water. It takes a bit of nerve to feel nonchalant when rolling backwards into a sea filled with circling pectoral fins — sometimes dozens at a time.
A note: Chumming is controversial ecologically because it interferes with the shark’s natural feeding patterns and teaches them to associate food with humans. With any shark, follow your guide’s instructions on how close to approach, because some sharks become territorial, and any wild animal can become dangerous if it feels harassed or threatened. In most cases, swimming with sharks involves looking, not touching. And never go on a shark swim if you have scratches or an open cut.
The apex shark encounter, of course, is the great white — which means getting into a cage. Premier great white shark diving can be found in South Africa, Australia, the Bahamas and California. Of course, nothing says you have to get into the water: Another option is to watch sharks feeding on seals from the safety of boats or shore.
Finally, if you’re looking for a kinder, gentler encounter, you can swim with sharks in the more controlled environment of giant oceanariums in Atlanta and Singapore. Regardless of the type of shark, a close encounter with any of these ancient and largely mysterious creatures is apt to stay in your memory for years to come.