Lemon sharks will be one of the most common species present at Eagle Ray Cove resort’s new shark-petting zoo. (photo courtesy of Albert Kok)
In a move to boost its tourism offerings, Blacktip Island’s Eagle Ray Cove resort this week unveiled its new shark-petting zoo in the shallows off the Eagle Ray Cove beach.
“It’s really a no brainer,” Eagle Ray Cove owner Rich Skerritt said. “People love sharks, and this gets them right up-close and personal with them. It hooks the kids, especially, and they’re our next generation of guests. This is a long-term investment.
“We built a wooden deck a foot or so under water so folks can pet the sharks without stirring up silt,” Skerritt said. “And while the kids are doing that, the parents can hang out at the bar or in the gift shop. We’ve doubled our pass-through traffic this week. And if a child occasionally gets bit, well, that’s a sacrifice we’re willing to make.”
Resort managers noted safety measures are in place.
“We get mostly nurses and lemons, so they’re not all that dangerous,” Eagle Ray Divers operations manager Ger Latner said. “We kit folks out in chain-mail gloves and booties, too, to guard against the occasional nips, and let them wade on in. And the sharks aren’t penned—they can come and go as they please.
“We sell little bags of squid and leftover pizza to feed to the sharks, but folks can also just jump in without chum,” Latner said. “Once the feeding frenzy starts, the water around the submerged deck goes white with all the thrashing. Sometimes you lose sight of the smaller kids. It’s beautiful to see. From shore.”
Resort staff said the attraction has educational value as well.
“Kids go bonkers ‘cause it literally connects them with nature,” divemaster Alison Diesel said. “Sure, the sharks bite their feet and hands, but with our handy fish ID cards, they can tell what kind of sharks. We’re creating future conservationists every day.”
Some on the island objected to the activity.
“They shouldn’t encourage people to feed any wildlife,” Marine Park spokesperson Val Schrader said. “That’s bad for the wildlife and they people. What happens when someone wades in without armored booties? Or goes swimming where sharked are habituated to being fed? They’re attracting apex predators. What happens when a bull, or a tiger shark shows up?
“Rich’s set up a situation where someone’s guaranteed to get hurt,” Schrader said. “And once that happens, it’ll give the entire island a black eye. This ultimately threatens tourism, and conservation efforts, on Blacktip. We’re pushing for legislation to ban this insanity.”
Skerritt rebuffed those concerns.
“The only people unhappy about this are Val and her earth-muffin cronies,” he said. “The kids get the thrill of a lifetime, and their parents get a break from them long enough to relax with a beer or buy a t-shirt. And our revenue’s doubled this past week. Where’s the down side to any of that?”