Shitika Anand spends an afternoon in the Shark Lagoon at Aquaventure Waterpark to feed a hungry family of cownose stingrays
First up, I must state that no humans (or animals) were harmed in the making of this Time Out Tries Out. Also, after reading this, you might just be convinced to cuddle a stingray at Atlantis The Palm.
You may be familiar with stingrays from either seeing them at almost every aquarium in Dubai or because of the freak accident that tragically killed the Australian animal-lover, Steve Irwin. When told that I’ve been invited to feed lunch to cownose rays, with my bare hands, no less, I tried not to Google any more facts about this marine animal.
The sharks and rays circle the Shark Lagoon as I arrive at Aquaventure Waterpark and a bucket of fresh shrimps sits on the table near me, releasing a pungent stench. Even the marine creatures at Atlantis The Palm are served gourmet meals. Classy.
But with the 44°C heat starting to get the better of me, my mind is suddenly deluged with questions: How will I ever get this seafood stench out of my hands? What if the stingrays don’t like my feeding method? How different is this to feeding my neighbour’s dog? What if the lemon sharks are pampered in this part of the world, and they want to be hand-fed, too?
My failed attempt to conceal my help-me-my-mind-is-exploding expression draws Robert Bennett, Manager of Large Exhibits at Atlantis The Palm, towards our camera crew and me. He assures me that all the stingrays and sharks in this lagoon are well fed, and none of my body parts are going to be their lunch on this particular afternoon. Phew. After a quick inspection of where the stingrays are, I slip into my rash vest and get waist-deep in the incredibly cool 24°C water. Rob hands me the stinky bucket and shows me how to hold the shrimps for feeding purposes. “Don’t drop the feed and don’t point a finger at the ray. They might get your finger,” he jokes. Umm, can we leave now?
This 35-minute cownose ray feeding session, which is exclusive to Aquaventure in Dubai, might be a regular activity for Rob – who has been working with marine animals for the past 15 years – but for me, it’s as daunting as walking into a Friday brunch with a full stomach. As we step into the water on this particularly hot day, the first thing we notice is all the sharks respectfully dispersing from the ray feeding zone. It’s as if they’re trained to not mess with the barb-armed creatures. Alas, if only they knew what a scary reputation they have outside of this lagoon and in that new shark movie starring Blake Lively. I decide to keep the bad news to myself and grab a fistful of shrimp. These rays get fed six portion-controlled meals a day, so they don’t overeat these gourmet shrimps (something you and I are very capable of doing at Ossiano).
There are 30 cownose rays in this lagoon, but before any of them make their way to us for lunch, a fever of porcupine rays, cowtail stingrays and a loner scaly whipray come to say hello. While the cowtail and scaly rays come up to the surface to be fed, the porcupines are the humble bottom-dwellers. They stay at the base and feed off the leftover food. Dropping more and hand-feeding less, I soon realise why the porcupine rays aren’t leaving the area, and are slowly wiggling their way towards my bare feet.
As a baby eagle ray (just a month old) circles around me and suctions shrimps from my fist, I feel something scaly and velvety wrap itself around my toes. “It’s just a porcupine ray, it’ll move away,” Rob assures me, after being temporarily deafened by my squeal (sorry!). But the hugs from these majestic creatures doesn’t stop there. The eagle ray loves the shrimp and the cownose rays finally mark their presence by excitedly splashing around. These kite-shaped rays have a whip-like tail and their head is divided into two, short rounded lobes with eyes on either end. As Rob and I feed from underneath, they wrap themselves around us, wanting more shellfish. There is nothing scary or unnerving about this anymore. It’s all very sweet and satisfying.
As we reach the end of the feeding bucket, I realise how much I adore stingrays, in all of their splash-filled, upside-down-smiley-face glory. Can I take one home with me, please?
Dhs150 per person (admission to Aquaventure Waterpark required). Daily times vary. Atlantis The Palm, Palm Jumeirah (04 426 0000).
Four to try Underwater experiences
Different to the safaris you’ll find in Africa, this underwater shark safari at Aquaventure Waterpark offers you a special helmet for breathing purposes and lets you take a walk among a family of sharks, rays and colourful fish. Dhs285 per person. www.atlantisthepalm.com.
Glass-Bottom Boat Rides
Don’t want to get your hair wet? Experience the underwater world from a glass-bottomed boat, instead, at the Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo. Ride on the surface of the tank and watch more than 70 different species of aquatic animals come and greet you from underneath. Boat rides leave daily, every 10-20 minutes. Dhs70. www.thedubaiaquarium.com.
Have your brave moment with 300 sharks and rays inside a safe cage in this ten million litre enclave at Dubai Aquarium. No diving experience is necessary for this one, as you’re safe inside bars and you’ll be given snorkelling gear to keep your breathing in check. Dhs350. www.thedubaiaquarium.com.
Al Mahara Restaurant
Experience the Burj Al Arab’s signature underwater restaurant, which is getting a makeover with Michelin-starred chef Nathan Outlaw taking over the reigns from September. Prices vary. Burj Al Arab, Jumeirah (04 301 7600).