By Fyllis Hockman
Donned out in snorkel equipment and wet suit – getting in and out of which was admittedly the most challenging aspect of the whole experience — I entered the 200,000 gallon coral reef tank filled with large and small residents — over 50 species of fish, sharks and eels — into whose life I was about to intrude at the Aquarium Encounters complex in Marathon, Florida.
I’ve been snorkeling before — but never in the past did the fish swarm to me rather than my having to swim out to them. But then again I don’t usually carry a supply of squiggly little sardines with me when I go, while at the same time making meaningful eye contact. Well, meaningful to me anyway.
So there I was co-mingling with tarpon, common snook, French grunts, permit fish, horse-eyed jack, and assorted friends. The Cownose rays were especially playful. At every turn, I was greeted by another underwater inhabitant: puffers, porcupine and butterfly fish, snappers, groupers – not that I really had any idea as to their individual identities at the time.
I wasn’t really surprised to find the infamous sharks behind a Plexiglas shield and fed through small holes in the glass. Still, the shark didn’t look any less menacing for being behind protective covering. I carefully followed the instructions on when to feed them directly and when to take better care of my fingers. There’s not always a second chance to do that with a shark…
Instructor Dan intones: “I’ll open the window and see how fast you guys can swim…” “Cool,” says my ever-eager 10-year-old snorkel companion. Fortunately, his shark-challenged swimming capabilities remained untested.
Ah so many fish, so little time — I fed as many as I could in the 35-minute feeding frenzy and came away with a new respect for the difference between just snorkeling — and actually swimming with the fishes…
Once back on land, touring the grounds was almost as spectacular. Walking around the complex, I felt like I had entered a magical forest of tropical plants, mangroves, palm trees surrounding multiple pools of a wide variety of fish from grouper to sting rays to angel and parrot fish to turtles and sharks and spiny lobsters. The extensive educational signage everywhere would satisfy the most eco-curious of visitors.
Throw food in one lagoon and Rainbow Parrot Fish appear from nowhere and brighten up the water immediately and immeasurably. A surprising thrill!
Carousing with sting rays in their private pool, I felt covered most of the time by a soft lightweight blanket caressing my body — only this blanket wanted to be fed fish which it ate with its underbelly. And we all know lions travel in “prides” and fish in “schools,” but did you know a group of sting rays is a “fever” and a bunch of sharks are a “shiver”? I clearly was surrounded by a fever of sting rays.
There are multiple touch tanks and feeding options. At Big Shark Bay, the sharks – relatives, I assume, to those in the coral reef tank — react to a sound and light show that brings them to an area to be fed and petted. But if they don’t choose to respond no one is going to force them. They’re big – and well – also they’re sharks.
The African-spurred tortoises are the third largest species of tortoise in the world and it’s difficult to distinguish them from the huge boulders sharing their exhibit. And then there are the incredibly bizarre-looking, colorful, very distinctly shaped lion fish who, by a freak of nature, are terribly destructive to the environment but ironically considered a dining delicacy. Whether just traversing the grounds or actively participating in an underwater adventure, Marathon’s Aquarium Encounters is a thoroughly interactive experience that leaves you ever more appreciative of the many denizens of the deep. For more information, visit floridakeysaquariumencounters.com.