Shark Bait

Face-to-face with marine critters at the Curacao Sea Aquarium

By: Janice Mucalov

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Scuba divers prepare for a shore dive.
My plan is to start you with the sharks, then the stingrays, then the turtles,” explained our dive guide Aline van Kampen at the Curacao Sea Aquarium.

No, we were not going to be fed to the sharks we were going to feed them. At that moment, this option hardly sounded much better.

Built directly by the sea on a coral reef, the aquarium is one of Curacao’s best attractions and a place where clients can safely interact with undersea critters, like swimming with dolphins and snorkeling with sea lions. As for feeding the sharks, the brochure for the aquarium’s Animal Encounters program assures guests that this is where their “worst fears” will become their “most treasured memories.”

While snorkeling was an option, my companion (who is a non-diver) and I chose the dive experience. We were first given a 30-minute dive introduction and fish briefing. Then, outfitted in scuba gear and with cans of sardines hanging from our vests, we sank down 12 feet to the sand and coral bottom.

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Snorkelers feed the stingrays and fish
at the Curacao Sea Aquarium.
As it turned out, it wasn’t the sharks we should have worried about, but the stingrays. Once we entered the water, they virtually swarmed us, knowing people meant food. However, Kampen reassured us the rays wouldn’t sting. Two beautiful gray creatures knocked me over with their soft undulating wing-like fins, but I recovered my balance, and the stingrays swam off as I followed Kampen to the shark area.

A wire mesh fence with a Plexiglas wall separated us from the sharks. As instructed, we pushed our sardines through four-inch holes in the Plexiglas. Immediately, several lemon and nurse sharks charged toward us and mashed their fierce-looking faces against the holes. Emboldened by my stingray escapade (and knowing I was safe behind the Plexiglas), I returned their stare. With my face right up against the Plexiglas, I peered down inside the open jaws of the lemon sharks just before their teeth bit into the sardines. The nurse sharks sucked up the bait and made a funny whooshing sound as they inhaled their food.

By now, I was thoroughly enjoying communing with Curacao’s marine life. We moved on to stroke the soft underbellies of the stingrays as they nuzzled the fish from our hands. And we admired the giant turtles, as well as gentle “Herbie,” a Goliath grouper five feet in length who loved to have his photo taken with swimmers.

The Animal Encounters dive program at the Curacao Sea Aquarium costs $54 per person. Both divers and non-divers from age 12 and up are welcomed to participate in this amazing hand-feeding activity. Clients may not lose their fear of sharks, but, just as promised, they are sure to take home treasured vacation memories.