Handfeeding rays is a truly memorable experience
I'm standing waist-deep in the clear waters of uShaka Sea World’s ray pool next to aquarist Matt Needham, gloves and booties on, a lump of fish in my hand, ready for feeding time.
As the rays swirl around us, nudging insistently with their snouts, I feel a frisson of excitement at being so close to these beautiful, graceful creatures of the sea.
Feeding the rays is one of uShaka Sea World’s animal encounters, one I had looked forward to with great anticipation.
Since the rays are fed at regular times, they have gathered at the base of the steps leading into their pool, "wings" flapping above the water.
The shiny feeding bucket contains fresh chunks of fish and squid, which form the basis of a ray’s diet.
As they have been trained to do, the rays swim up to us to be fed. As each handful of food is held in front of their mouths, they simply suck it in, returning repeatedly until they are satisfied.
These spotted eagle rays and bull rays share their home with a school of large, boisterous pompano. The pompanos are obviously well versed in the rays' feeding ritual, which differs from their own, and seem eager to get a share of the fish, even masquerading as rays with mouths open and nibbling us on the legs.
Once the feeding is over I remove a glove to feel a ray’s silky-smooth body and examine its toothless mouth.
Since the pompanos are still all around me, I stroke their firm olive-green bodies too, marvelling at their strength and incredible agility as they suddenly flap their tails madly, churning up the water.
Rays, sharks and sand sharks are fish classified as cartilaginous, since they lack a true skeleton. Instead they are equipped with a support structure composed of cartilage.
Feeds take place on Wednesdays and Sundays at 2pm and you have to book by noon on the day. The cost is R120 and only one person does the feed at a time, with a trained uShaka Sea World aquarist in constant attendance.
Feeding the rays is just one of uShaka Sea World’s animal-encounter experiences. You might also like to meet a dolphin, become an ocean walker, dive in the snorkel lagoon or go shark cage-diving.
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