They're Not Hugrays (September 2011)

by Natalie Novak

If you feed them, someone will eventually get bitten.

When I was a teenager I studied scuba diving in Belize and became a dive professional. I spent a lot of time diving with the original family who had brought recreational scuba diving to Belize. I had some amazing learning experiences in my time in San Pedro, and on the mainland, but now I prefer Akumal and the Rivera Maya.

One of the reasons I treasure Akumal is that we do not feed animals on our dives or snorkel trips. When I was a teenager I thought it was so cool that the guides would feed stingrays and nurse sharks in Shark Ray Alley. A friend of mine would even pick up the nurse sharks and turn them over (which paralyzes them) so guests could touch them.

One day I decided I should try feeding a stingray. The guys gave me a dead fish and, as I put it into the water, I was swarmed by stingrays and nurse sharks. So I let the fish go and took another. Then I swam away from the swarm holding the fish out of the water until I found a single stingray. As I tried to get it to take the fish, another stingray swam over me from behind. It was cool and it felt kind of rubbery. I let go of my fish and accomplished my mission of feeding a stingray. (I am in no way suggesting ever touching or trying to feed a stingray. The name alone should tell you why; as Ivan says, "There is a reason we do not call them hugrays.")

On our dives, the guides regularly fed groupers, nurse sharks and reef sharks; these were guides with 30 years of experience. In 100 dives with them I saw days where they had trouble opening a mask case that contained food and a nurse shark would bite the guide, or a disappointed grouper would nudge the divers to try and prompt a feeding. These are not natural behaviors for predators who naturally keep a distance form divers in areas where they are not fed.

On a trip back to the island a few years ago, I ran into my friend who regularly flipped over the nurse sharks on snorkel trips. He had a huge scar on one of his hands and was missing the webbing between his