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As the seven-foot lemon shark lunged for the fish in my hand, exposing its multiple rows of razor-sharp teeth, I couldn’t help but feel my heart skip a beat — despite the thick pane of plexiglass separating me from the carnivorous fish.
This “Meet & Feed” experience was provided by Animal Encounters, a program operated by the diving and water sport company Ocean Encounters Diving Curacao. At Curacao Sea Aquarium, on the east end of the island, Animal Encounters allows guests to feed and swim with fish and other marine animals.
After the instructors taught my group how to safely feed the fish, we donned our snorkels, masks and flippers and hopped into the water in the aquarium’s enclosed lagoon. We swam with stingrays and a variety of tropical fish, including tarpon, Atlantic spadefish, horse-eye jacks, French grunts and a startlingly enormous goliath grouper named “Herbie.”
One instructor tossed each of us bait fish to feed the marine animals that swam alongside us in the lagoon, while the other instructor snapped our photo souvenirs with an underwater camera. We fed the more dangerous animals –– loggerhead sea turtles and lemon sharks –– by holding the fish in a closed fist and putting them through holes in the glass.
We also fed nurse sharks this way, but the instructors required us to put the fish just outside the hole on our side in order to keep their vacuum-like mouths from sucking on our fingers. As exciting as it was to get close to the sharks, my favorite animals to feed were the stingrays. We lured the lagoon’s stingrays to us with bait fish while we sat in the shallows, where the stingrays gently climbed onto our laps and nibbled on the fish in a way that strangely reminded me of puppy dogs.
Visitors to the aquarium can observe the marine animals, snorkelers and divers from the “viewing boat” docked in the lagoon, which is equipped with special windows below deck for onlookers. No dive certification is required for Animal Encounters’ programs, and “Meet & Feed” encounters can be booked for groups of up to six participating guests.
Apart from the aquarium location, Ocean Encounters has centers at three resorts on the island: Lions Dive & Beach Resort, Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort and Sunscape Curacao Resort, Spa & Casino. Guests can stop by any of these locations to book trips or rent equipment, including snorkeling gear, kayaks, paddleboards and catamarans.
Ocean Encounters provides plenty of other activities for non-certified divers. In addition to shore snorkeling, which is available at all reefs along the company’s facilities at any time, Ocean Encounters takes clients on two special snorkel trips. One trip brings snorkelers to a shipwrecked tugboat in a protected bay — where coral, tube sponges, blue parrotfish and yellowtail snappers abound — and the other goes to Directors’ Bay and combines beach and reef snorkeling.
For guests interested in learning how to scuba dive, the company offers a class that gives non-divers the chance to learn the basics of scuba in a confined pool with dolphins. A variety of other scuba courses are offered, too — from introductory classes and PADI open-water certification training for beginners to advanced classes and specialty courses in photography or fish identification for experienced divers.
For its diving excursions, Ocean Encounters takes guests to a multitude of gorgeous underwater sites around the island. One such site is the Mushroom Forest, where colorful coral formations have grown into mushroom-like shapes amid a host of marine life. Another trip takes divers to the wreckage of the Superior Producer, which sank in 1977 and now sits on the ocean floor 100 feet below the surface. Divers should also check out the divers-only boat ride to Klein Curacao, the uninhabited island off the southeast tip of Curacao that showcases some of the area’s best diving.
Known for its great reefs, beautiful water and diverse marine life, Curacao is truly a scuba diving and snorkeling hotspot. Within the diving community, the waters around Curacao are also known for being relatively free of sharks, which will likely come as good news for many visitors to the island.
For more adventurous divers hoping to encounter sharks during their time in Curacao, there’s always the “Meet & Feed” at Curacao Sea Aquarium. Just be sure to watch your fingers.