The Shark Whisperer Of Belize
“What do you mean, he’s the Shark Whisperer?”
The bartender grinned slyly as he handed me a halved coconut brimming with rum punch. “I won’t give it away. You’ll see for yourself. Just try not to think of Steve Irwin and you’ll be fine.”
Belizean culture, I had discovered, was a sizzling fusion of Mayan ancestry, colonial influence and Caribbean flair. I was on the island of Caye Caulker, where brightly painted huts sold fried fish on the beach and locals spoke Kriol with a rubbery drawl. Once a sleepy fishing village, the island first became a backpacker haven for hippies following the Gringo Trail in the 1970’s.
Nowadays, Caye Caulker’s primary attraction (aside from its endless supply of colorful hammocks strung between shimmying palms) is its proximity to the Belize Barrier Reef. I had initially planned to dive the famous Great Blue Hole, but scuba excursions proved more expensive than I’d anticipated. And so, not wanting to transform my bank account into my very own Great Hole, I opted to follow the bartender’s advice and snorkel with the legendary Shark Whisperer instead.
I arrived at the yellow hut with the hand-painted sign the next morning at 10 a.m. — the crack of dawn by Belizean standards. I paid my USD$35 to register for the snorkel tour and chatted with a handful of other backpackers until our guide sauntered in at quarter past 11. He was a Rastafarian in his late forties with hip-length dreadlocks that were thicker than cucumbers. Without introducing himself (as the Shark Whisperer or otherwise), he led us down to the pier and onto a small fishing boat with an outboard motor.
The lolling sea was the same shade of brilliant turquoise as the Jell-O shots the bar had served the night before. The sky was stark blue save for a distant smudge of cirrus clouds. As parts of the Belize Barrier Reef are actually connected to Caye Caulker, it only took a few minutes to reach our first snorkeling spot.
“Shark Ray Alley,” our guide intoned as he killed the motor.
We donned our masks and fins and splashed into the water. It was less than seven feet deep, and I struggled to keep my flippers from making contact with the frying pans that blanketed the ocean floor. Wait—frying pans? I peered closer and realized that they were in fact southern stingrays.
Their bodies were diamond-shaped and ranging between one and five feet in diameter, with shadowy backs, pale bellies and barbed whiptails. Some lay flat against the sand — fluttering skittishly when my fins got too close — while others cruised through the blue like flying saucers.
Our guide slipped into the water beside me without making a splash. Unlike the rest of us — so excited we floundered like the fish of the same name — he moved with gentle grace. His tranquility was soon registered by the animals and a few swam up right beside him, unconcerned as he reached out and slowly stroked their backs
Suddenly, in one swift, controlled movement, he grabbed a stingray by its pectoral wings and held it up to face him. Despite finding itself immobile and arched in a U-position, the animal didn’t appear panicked. As I gawked in disbelief, the guide turned and handed me the ray.
I tried to mimic the Rastafarian’s composure, but my arms trembled uneasily and the ray’s tail began to thrash back and forth. Don’t think of Steve Irwin, I ordered myself. Still, I was unable to calm my nerves and the ray continued struggling, so I let go and watched it dart off into the aquatic ether.
We clambered back into the boat and puttered to our next point: The Channel. This time, our guide chummed the water with chunks of pungent raw fish before we flopped overboard. Within seconds a feeding frenzy ensued. Nurse sharks with moustache-like barbels slithered over one another with such fervor I thought for sure they were attempting to climb into the boat. Just when the commotion was at its zenith, our guide slid down into the heart of the action and gestured for us to follow suit.
I recalled that nurse sharks were mostly harmless, but that didn’t prevent the Jaws theme from echoing in my ears as I splashed into the water. Leathery skin writhed against my torso and a dorsal fin caught me sharply in the armpit. Once again, the guide tenderly caressed the fish. All of a sudden, he grabbed one of the animals in a giant hug. He wrestled with it for a few seconds before seizing its snout and flipping it onto its back.
The shark fell instantly into tonic immobility — a paralytic state which can be induced either by flipping the shark over or by rubbing its snout. Our guide relaxed his grip until he was cradling it like an infant before yet again passing the animal over to me.
My heart pounded as I embraced the nurse shark. Its spine was stiff yet it was completely still, as if in a state somewhere between rigor mortis and nirvana. As the sunlight streamed into the shallows, I found myself conflicted between the serenity of connecting so intimately with nature and the terror of clutching a real live shark (even if it was only a nurse shark).
I glanced up and discovered that our guide had wrangled enough sharks for everybody to hold. I smiled, inviting a rush of seawater into my mask. He really is the Shark Whisperer, I thought to myself.
Now, how the heck do I let go of this thing?
By S. Bedford
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
S. Bedford is from Toronto, and has backpacked over 50 countries. Her skills include navigating a wide variety of toilet styles, miming “vegetarian” and choosing the bed that doesn’t have bedbugs. She is currently writing a novel about her travel misadventures. (@sbedford86)