Thursday, June 26, 2014

Swimming with Sharks and Sting Rays

While I was in Moorea, I spent many hours swimming around with sharks and sting rays.  It was completely amazing.

There is an area on the north coast of Moorea, inside the coral reef, across from the Intercontential Hotel, a mile and a half west of Opunohu Bay where I was anchored.  There is a sand shelf there with water between 3 and 5 feet deep - shallower as you walk toward the reef and deeper as you walk off the shelf.  Tour boats arrive here every day, and I expect, have been arriving for many years.  The boats carry something like 20 people each and when I arrived there were two boats there as well as a few smaller private boats.  The tour boats bring along some fish and feed the sharks and sting rays.  When the boats arrive, so do the sharks and rays.

I had heard that the tour boats arrive at 10am, so I got to the area around 10:30, anchored my dinghy out of the way and then strolled through the shallow water over to the crowd.  As I strolled over, I started seeing reef sharks swim by, as well as sting rays.  Seeing all the tourists in the water taking photos of the sharks and rays, as well as the tour guides being in the water as well, was encouraging for me.  If they could do this, so could I.

I made a short video of what I saw while I was there.  In hindsight the footage I captured doesn't really capture the moment very well - I was busy having fun and not thinking too much about getting video to edit later.

The link is:

Before arriving in French Polynesia I was a little freaked out by being in the water with sharks.  I had read from other people's blogs that over time you get used to it, and that by the end of your time in FP swimming with sharks was a good thing, not something to be feared.  Its true.  Swimming with sharks is really cool.

The sharks in this area are all reef sharks, not dangerous.  I have heard of the rare accident between a person and a reef shark, but these aren't typical.  One story had a person in shallow murky water and a reef shark bumped into them.  When the person then pushed the shark away, the shark bit their hand.  The sharks in the water that I've seen have been somewhere between 'totally disinterested' in me, to 'very mildly curious.'  They look at you as they pass by, but there is no interaction.  If you reach out to try to touch one, they move away.  You need to respect that you are swimming with a wild animal - but a well fed animal, totally in its element, unthreatened by us.

Sting Ray's are actually pretty cute.  Its hard not to watch a ray swim by without appreciating the elegance of its motion.  The slow flapping of its wings (are they called wings?) and their motion has always had my interest.  It turns out that they are also very fast.  At the end of the video the guy, whose name I didn't get, throws his fish into the water and a ray gets it.  What the video doesn't show is that then that ray was chased by several sharks and other rays around the area hoping it would give the fish up.  The chase was very fast and I don't know which animal ate the fish in the end - but their lazy movement around us is misleading about what these animals are really capable of.  Sharks seem faster in a straight line but the ray's are pretty fast and can turn on a dime.

I was given a bit of fish by one of the cruisers who arrived and the rays started climbing up my chest to try to get it.  Their skin is really soft - they don't mind your stroking them as they swim around you and they feel soft and kind of rubbery.

I was glad that I first arrived when there were a lot of tourists in the area, as that served to give me courage to get and stay in the water.  Jumping into shark infested waters is not an intuitive act.  The tour boats left within a half an hour or so and then some other cruisers and tourists arrived in kayaks, dinghies, SUPs, etc.  Many of these people were intimidated about getting in the water - I think having a big crowd do it before you without incident helps build your courage.  I didn't feel at all threatened by the sharks or rays in my several hours there.  As they say, it was all good.

This was a simply awesome experience, a highlight of my time in French Polynesia.  If any of you get the chance to do this - I highly recommend it.

I think my favorite marine animal is still the dolphin.  But I didn't really have a second favorite.  Ray's are now my second favorite.  Sharks are the third I guess - although this will be restricted to reef sharks for now.  I don't plan to swim with the Great White, Hammerhead, Lemon or those other sharks that can and do consider people part of their food chain.  Reef sharks are cute, those others?  Not so much.

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