I have written a lot about Bora Bora. About its beaches, its lagoon, the many activities one can indulge in, the food, the resorts, the adventure, the sharks…but there is one incredible experience left to share: feeding and swimming with stingrays.
Stingrays are wild animals and very dangerous ones. I remember an ex-colleague of mine was once stung on the foot by one in Zanzibar and the situation became so bad that she had to be air lifted and evacuated to a proper hospital.
So when I read that you could feed and swim with them in Bora Bora I was skeptical and quite scared. In fact, I had assumed that this would be done in the safety of a zoo-like enclosure, I never could have imagined this actually happened in the wild.
When I checked in into the Intercontinental Resort and Thalasso Spa I was immediately told by the concierge that everyday, at 2pm, there was a feeding session at the beach. Since I arrive just around that time and had a while to spare until my villa became ready I decided to go check it out.
The wild stingrays are so used to being fed every day that they usually come around this time to the shore. They are hungry but they are no threat to humans. Although their sting is still visible you are best not touching it.
At around 2pm I see one of the pool boys passing with a bucket and when he gets to the beach he blows he conch shell, the communication instrument and official alarm in French Polynesia, to announce the feeding is about to start.
Some of the guests have seen it before and everyone congregates on the beach with water up to knee level.
The stingrays are already there, about 10-15 of them quickly swimming between our legs, brushing themselves against our legs and thighs, sometimes climbing up our legs. They clearly know the drill. They look anxious and impatient.
Any guest is welcome to take a piece of fish and feed it to the stingrays. If you hold the bucket or a fish out in your hand they will know and chances are they’ll climb up to your waist.
I am frightened and as soon as a sting ray brushes itself against my leg unexpectedly, I scream. They feel both slimy and soft and rough on their tails.
Stingrays have no teeth so the risk is localize on their tails and they haven’t stung anyone in years, or at least that is what the pool boys tell me.
Their mouths are on the bottom of their bodies, below the tip and so for them to reach out to the piece of fish you are trying to give them they need to climb up and get it from your hand. They have some tiny cute mouths and they simply suck the fish off you.
The pool boys are clear to remind all the men and boys to be careful because they like to suck anything that sticks out. There you go, I said it!
It is a very entertaining affair. I am petrified so all I can think of is let them not get close to me. I look everywhere, front, back, sides and watch out for any of them approaching. They are clearly hungry and are relatively aggressive and forward in climbing up to you. I am visibly scared so try to stay away on this first time.
On subsequent days I attend the “show” every day and get a little more comfortable with the situation every time. Eventually we book ourselves on one of the lagoon tours which includes both sting ray feeding in the open sea as well as swimming with sharks.
After the sharks, the stingrays seem rather tame and lame in the danger scale, so I jump in. The waters are infested with stingrays and you are waist-level deep. Sharks are also there, they are not stupid, they know there is food to be had, and even some seagulls are also flying over our heads ready to pick up a piece of fish if you throw it in the air. Quite impressive. I remember one of them stole my burger out of a McDonald’s store in Sydney just the week before, they are mean and smart – tragic combination.
These stingrays in the open lagoon are either very well fed, and therefore not so keen on climbing our legs, or much more quieter and they are not half as inquisitive as the ones at the resort so I feel safer and spend quite some time with them.
They are friendly and extremely playful. They come close, they swim between your legs and I slowly lose my fear. They go from Horror-movie status to Bambi.
I enjoyed the whole experience and found it an incredibly fantastic and almost grotesquely perfect encounter with wildlife. Since the daily feeding continues at the hotel I still have 3 more days to participate and I do not miss one. Eventually we book a private boat for an additional day lagoon touring and we go back to see the stingrays. Since we go in the afternoon they have already been fed all day so they are not half as interested in us as we are.
Despite how thrilling and interesting it was I couldn’t help but feel terribly sad and guilty. I could not watch everyone touching them and clearly stressing them out. It was not fair to do this on these amazing creatures.
I can’t imagine this is doing these animals any good. The tour guys regularly grab the stingrays and give them a hug. People kiss them and touch them. They obviously do not seem to like being constrained and so they splash around until they manage to free themselves. I pass on both, I don’t feel it is right to manhandle these beautiful animals so I stick to watching them and letting them brush my legs.
And I can’t help but wonder, is the Intercontinental Hotel guilty of creating a dependent behavior on the stingrays that come close to the hotel’s shore? Should I have avoided the tour altogether? When I had read about it I did not imagine it was like that. The animals remain in their natural habitat, they are not treated badly and they are not abused but, we, as humans, have no right to invade their eco-system and degrade them to zoo-level creatures. Plus with the entire feeding they have become used to human dependency so I wonder if they would survive should the tours stopped.
I wish we could all just swim among them, without the unnatural feeding and without the forced and aggressive interaction. It would be equally beautiful to simply snorkel among them, watch them dance in the water, sliding through with their wide and undulating wings and simply stare at this show of nature without altering it. But somehow, as with countless other animals and experiences, we have sadly ruined it.
I left with a bittersweet taste and I would probably stay on the boat or just jump in without any feeding if I ever return. As with most wildlife experiences and conservation efforts the moral ramifications and consequences always out weight the selfishness and superiority of humanity.