By Tim Johnson
One minute, there are no sharks – just a wide-open stretch of aquamarine so clean and clear, I can see all the way to the bottom. And then, suddenly, dozens surround us. Forming an almost continuous grey mass off the back of our catamaran, they churn the water white as they jockey for position, chomping up the chum thrown in by our crew – and looking, to my eyes, genuinely terrifying as they did so. So I made the obvious decision to go ahead and jump in.
I’m in Belize at Shark Ray Alley on the Mesoamerican Reef. It’s the largest reef in the Western Hemisphere producing a swirling kaleidoscope of fish and the unique opportunity swim alongside dozens of sharks. Waiting for one particularly huge shark to pass, I put on my mask and snorkel and take the plunge, trying to keep my arms and legs compact – and unbitten – while swimming just inches from this roiling mass of shark.
An hour later, I emerge from the waters (happily) unscathed – nurse sharks, it turns out, are almost entirely harmless. These shark swims are commonplace here, offered on most snorkel trips, and the safety record is very good; even the squeamish on our boat manage to get into the water.
I return to the warm Caribbean several more times during my vacation, strapping on my snorkel and swimming along the surface, marvelling at the diversity, and sheer number of fish on the massively prolific reef below: the yellow-and-blue flash of queen triggerfish; black-and-white banded butterflyfish; small, menacing porcupine puffers; and creepy, sleek barracuda.
My adventure began in the water and fittingly ends in the water – this time with a paddle. Deep in the jungle, I glide down the Rio Grande, a sacred river, the tip of the canoe silently slicing the green-blue waters, the only sound being the mysterious creaks and croaks of the surrounding rainforest. It could’ve been now, or a hundred, or a thousand years ago – a timeless moment, simple, and yet extraordinary. Ahead, the village awaits. But I could’ve stayed on this river forever.