The sharks’ skin feels like wet sandpaper beneath my fingertips. I pet it like a dog as it swims beneath and beside me. He swims several yards ahead and circles back to me for more.
First, there are only two nurse sharks about four feet long vying for my attention and suddenly a third, slightly larger one joins the party, the mother.
I sailed out into the second largest barrier reef in the world, off the coast of Belize, with a man known as the “fish whisperer” in that part of the world. It is as if the fish wait for him. He doesn’t feed them to attract their attention as the commercial boats do, he has a Pied Piper connection with the fish. It takes me a few minutes to realize that the sharks are swimming with us, not us swimming with them.
This man was literally born on a boat, his mother gave birth to him on the way to the island where he still lives. He took his first group out to show them the wonders of the reef at fifteen and has been doing it ever since, now at almost eighty.
After we pet the sharks, he scoops his arms under one and cradles her, belly side up. I watch in amazement as he removes his snorkel and kisses the belly of the shark, motioning for me to do the same. I’m a rule follower by nature, and do so spontaneously, I feel the smooth belly against my lips before I have a moment to think. It is perhaps a one second kiss but it leaves an indelible impression on me.
The fish whisper tells me that they can hear our heartbeat underwater and if we are afraid, they sense it and that makes them nervous. Growing up in Wisconsin around animals, I had always known that truth about horses and dogs but never thought of it in terms of fish.
Years ago he found the mother of these juveniles injured and moved her underneath a rock, coming back to visit every day and bring her some food. She eventually healed completely and greeted him each day under his boat after that. Her offspring followed suit and he visits them daily. I was lucky enough to go with him for a sail and a snorkel in his small boat.
If kissing a shark isn’t enough of an experience, he calls four Manta Rays to him by snapping his fingers underwater. They had been swimming below us as if waiting their turn while we were playing with the sharks. He had previously briefed me onboard about what to expect, but when he motions for me to turn on my back under the water and he lays one on me like a blanket, it completely covers my body, head to toe and I felt a bit claustrophobic. The prehistoric-looking fish with a white rubbery underbelly stays there for a few moments before silently gliding off of me gracefully. They are graceful, curious, and harmless. The entire experience felt spiritual. I had such a deep connection with these creatures that I was speechless for about half an hour after I crawled up into the boat. Speechless is a rarity for me!
I have been snorkeling and diving in some incredible places, Australia, Indonesia, Philippines, Mexico, Caribbean and swam with the Whale Sharks on two different occasions but the one with the fish whisperer stands out in my mind.
He has turned down offers by National Geographic saying he doesn’t want to turn his world into a circus, preferring to remain anonymous. I respect his wishes and won’t divulge exactly where this experience took place. But it was real and I took some friends out there with him on another occasion. They had the same exact reaction that I did, speechless.