Reporter dives with the sharks and stingrays
Channel Five's William Neal has been in some tight spots during his distinguished broadcasting career, but none can quite measure up to the time in 1999 when he took the plunge into the gin clear waters between San Pedro and Caye Caulker. While the story plays down the dangers of cavorting with sharks and rays, viewers should note that the activities undertaken by Neal and, particularly, his guide, are far more provocative than anything reportedly done by Steve Irwin which resulted in his death.
William Neal, Reporting
It's always nice to get away for a few days at the cayes... to enjoy the sun, the sand and the surf off the hemisphere's longest barrier reef. In fact the reef is the main reason why I'm heading out to San Pedro in the first place. Having only recently learned to snorkel I've been invited to sample what has become one of the island's biggest underwater attractions. You've heard of swimming with the dolphins... well today I'm going to swim with the sharks.
“All the dive shops here in San Pedro run trips to Shark Ray Alley. Today Edgar Lima of Amigos del Mar is my guide. I have my fins, my mask and my snorkel and I'm ready to go.”
Shark Ray Alley lies just behind the Barrier Reef, about five miles from San Pedro and slightly further from Caye Caulker. Boats from both islands bring visitors here for an experience that few will soon forget.
“It's beautiful. I see a lot of sharks and right around the boats I see ten-fifteen rays. Swim around with, very peaceful, beautiful animals. I like it.”
“There's like a million different kinds of fish and they're just beautiful. I love it.”
“It's pretty awesome. I really like it. The rays are really neat. I never swam with rays before or sharks.”
"Where you scared?"
“At first I thought I'd be but, no.”
These glowing testimonials greatly eased my anxiety... that is until I saw our boatman throwing scraps of fish into the water. This, he explained, is what attracts the sharks and the rays in the first place. It seems that for years the local fishermen used to come to this spot to clean their catch, throwing the remains of fish, lobster and conch over the side. The sharks and rays got used to coming here for food. Now the feeding is deliberate and visitors are pretty much guaranteed a good turnout. My only fear was that I was on the menu for lunch.
“The first question is simply this, am I stupid to even be thinking about jumping in water with sharks?”
Edgar Lima, Dive Guide
“Not really, sharks are used to people because as you can see there is a bunch of boats, like today, are everyday in the water so they are used to people already. So they are not going to do anything to you.”
“And you're reassuring me that there's no reason to be afraid?”
“There's no reason to be afraid, exactly.”
"Well, the moment of truth is here, I'm ready somewhat to face my fears... sharks!”
At first it looked like just another day in paradise... but it didn't take long for the posse to find me... as the neighborhood known as Shark Ray Alley was beginning to live up to its name. Sometimes the action was so thick that you could hardly get out of the way.
But true to Edgar's word these nurse sharks and southern stingrays had not seen the movie "JAWS". In fact, I was beginning to wonder if Shark Ray Alley wasn't more dangerous for the fish than the snorkelers.
“What we do, well let's say me, when I bring of group of people out here the first thing we are gonna do right, we have to explain to everybody, like please try not to touch our coral or kick the coral; try not to harass the sharks and the rays because it's just like a pet like a dog or a cat. If you try to move their tails or things like that they are gonna get mad. So what we try to tell, well try to pet them real smooth, touch them if you want but don't harass or don't pull their tails or things like that.”
While I wasn't about to pull a shark's tail, I did at least work up enough courage to touch its sandpaper like skin. Edgar, however, was obviously on more intimate terms with the residents of Shark Ray Alley... much more intimate.
But even after seeing that kind of cross cultural affection, I still had to ask: Have there ever been any mishaps?
“It's been, I would say, not a lot, a couple of them. Like how I was just saying, sometimes you're swimming too and you're moving your hands and the shark, they're looking for the food and you're moving your hands right and they think that's food. And so you move it slowing and they come sometimes and suck it out of your, and then suck your finger. But it's nothing big like they're gonna cut a piece of your arm or nothing like that, just a small little thing, you know.”
“In the end I survived Shark Ray Alley; I suspect you can too. From San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, I am William Neal for News Five”