Some of the most common sharks that we can get close enough to swim with around the world are reef sharks and rays. It is possible to have encounters with one or the other (or sometimes both together) of these species in many countries.
Happily, people are becoming more informed on these animals and know most species of sharks are far more afraid of us than we are – or should be – of them. However, a lot of people still hear the enigmatic theme from Jaws when they first see a fin, or are worried stingrays are out to get us.
Obviously I’m not saying all sharks are created equal, and of course there are certain species that should have extra care with – like with certain breeds of dog – and some that humans should stay away from totally as they are very dangerous. Bull Huss, nurse sharks, and hammerheads are not directly aggressive and won’t attack. But they can be grumpy, so shouldn’t be approached too closely, as they will give a nip if they feel threatened. While Tiger sharks, Bull sharks, giant hammerheads and, of course Great Whites, can deliberately attack, posing the greatest threat to humans so should be completely avoided.
However, many other species cause no issues at all, and – like dogs – most sharks are not aggressive unless given a very good reason to be. I’ve swum with stingrays (common, Atlantic and Cow head) and reef sharks (black tip, white tip, and silver) in the wild many times and have always had calm, wonderful and safe experiences.
I worked at Deep Sea World aquarium in Scotland for four years while studying, giving talks on the sea life there and handling some of the animals, including getting in the tank with sharks and rays almost every day. I loved spending time getting to know these incredible creatures first-hand and enjoy sharing my love of sharks with others to help them not be afraid and want to have encounters of their own with them – especially in their own habitats.
I wrote this to put your mind at ease about these safe shark species.
Reef sharks, surprisingly enough, live in or around coral reefs around the world. As there are many varied reefs, there are also many types of reef sharks. They are generally on the smaller side for a shark, usually between 4-6ft long when fully grown. This is how they evolved from living in shallow waters with coral reefs, and they are small enough to maneuver through the reefs, and fast enough to catch wily reef fish for dinner.
They feed on animals that live on the reef; including fish, crab and octopus if they can catch one. They patrol the reefs and drop off points at the edge of them is one of their favourite hunting spots. They hunt alone, but can congregate in groups of up to twenty when there is an ample food source. They don’t see humans as a threat to them, so pose no threat to us.
As far as temperament goes, they are quite shy, but if you see them in a place where snorkel tours stop regularly, they will be more used to us. While in these places, they may be curious enough to get within a couple of feet of you, they will likely scarper if you try to approach them too closely, as they are a bit scared of us still.
They have three rows of very sharp teeth, which are replaced constantly throughout their lives with more rows just underneath the surface, as their teeth are their meal ticket, and without a constant good set, they’d starve. They have rough skin, which feels like sandpaper, this is to give extra protection from being bitten in an attack, and helps them stay camouflaged.
Shark mentality is that size is everything, and therefore if you are larger or around the same size as it – which humans are with reef sharks – it will not attack you. Even if you do something stupid such as steal its food source or get in the way during mating season, it assumes if you’re bigger or the same size, that you could best it in a fight, so will swim away. It has no concept of the fact that it can clearly swim a lot faster than a human, and while it can breathe underwater, humans can’t.
If for any reason, a shark does get too close for comfort – punch it in the nose. This old saying may sound ridiculous, but it works. Sharks have thousands of nerve endings in their noses, they are more sensitive than human eyes, so giving the hardest punch you can manage underwater will smart quite a bit, and make it think you are a tough fighter, so it will swiftly swim away. Just don’t try this method with a great white.
Rays are flat sharks that have evolved to having a flatter shape over time to be able to hide in sand to rest, wait for prey, or hide from predators. They aren’t streamlined like their typical shark shaped cousins, but are in the same genus. One of the easiest ways to spot a shark is by counting its gills. Fish have one set of gills, and sharks (which are fish, but a specific genus), have more. Most sharks have five sets of gills on each side of their head. There are exceptions, such as the seven and six gill shark, but basically, if there’s five gills instead of one – it’s a shark. There are about 630 species of rays in the world, and if that, 220 are stingrays.
There are many types of stingrays that are easy enough to find to swim with around the world – such as the Atlantic stingray and cowhead ray, but the most prevalent is the common stingray, and they’re found in most tropical waters on earth.
I’d to address the issue of some people still being afraid of stingrays. This is mostly due to Australian zoologist and wildlife host Steve Irwin sadly dying after being stung by one. I want to assure you that this tragedy was just that – a tragedy, and extremely rare incident.
Steve Irwin died as he was revving the rays up to get better footage for his show, which meant they were nervous and one was so scared, it has the sting armed when he swam over it. The stinger got him in his chest – in the heart. If he’d been stung in an arm or leg, he would have recovered. This incident was tragic, but it does not mean people should fear stingrays.
Stingrays are NOT aggressive, and it is incredibly unlikely that one would try to sting a human at all. Stingrays live for an average of 25 years, and it takes about five to fully regrow their stinger. They instinctively know that if they use their sting up then they will be left relatively defenseless for a long time. The sting has a one time only use – like a bee’s sting – as it is expelled from the tail to be inserted into whatever the threat is.
Therefore, a stingray will only ever actively sting if it is in genuine fear for its life. The stinger is situated about 2/3 of the way down the tail and can be easily seen, and even touched, without any issue. The ray has to actively decide to use the stinger, by squeezing a muscle near the tail, so it can’t “go off” by accident. The sting has ridged barbs along it (which tour guides sometimes show you while on the boat if they have an old one), which point inward. This means that if they sting something, the barbs are hooked into it, so it is very hard to get it out, which is how they get away from larger predators trying to eat them.
To touch one safely, stroke them on the top of their body away from their eyes, with the grain of their denticles. These are tiny teeth-like calcium bumps on their skin, which all sharks have which make them tougher to bite into and able to hide under sand as it sticks to them. Because of these denticles, stroking a stingray feels like stroking a cat’s tongue.
Their noses are very sensitive, like all sharks, so be gentle around the nose area. The underneath of the ray is very soft, but be aware that their mouths are under there too. They will not bite you – they don’t even have teeth as such – but they do have hard calcium pads, not unlike cows do, and very strong jaws. They eat crab and other crustaceans, crushing the shells with these jaws, so they have a vice-like grip. While their grip probably wouldn’t cut you or open the skin at all, it can give you a bruise. This is why when feeding them, you should always hold fish in your palm between your fingers and thumb with the fish sticking out at least halfway, and tuck your thumb under so it isn’t hoovered up with the fish. Also be aware that if a lot of food is thrown out near you and the rays swim all over you, they are excited looking for food, and start to slurp at anything they think is lunch, so you may end up with a ‘stingray hickie’!
I love stingrays. They are friendly and beautiful and I recommend everyone have an encounter with one at least once.
I hope this has helped convinced you that most sharks, including stingrays and reef sharks should not be the stuff of nightmares, but are beautiful creatures that we should admire and enjoy seeing in the wild if we can.
If you do want to swim with them in the wild, wherever in the world you go, take a reputable organized tour so you’re going with people who know how to act around the animals and will guide you through the experience, especially if you’ve never seen one in the wild before.
The experience will hopefully be a memorable delight, like mine have been, and you’ll be a shark geek too in no time.