Just the sight of something that looks like a shark fin cutting through the ocean water is enough to scare most beach enthusiasts to their core, sending them scrambling through the waves back to the safety of the shore.
Miguel Ángel Lacuna, a marine biologist from Venezuela, would like those who fear the sleek sea predators to meet Gisy, the six-foot nurse shark that is the star attraction of his Eco Shark educational marine center, just outside Playas del Coco, on the northern Pacific coast.
“Four hundred people are killed every year by coconuts; 20 people are killed by sharks,” Lacuna says. “We are the Spielberg generation.We are Disney victims, and they paint the sharks as something bad.”
The Venezuelan biologist hopes to change that with Eco Shark, which functions like a marine petting zoo. Open seven days a week, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., the Eco Shark center offers a guided educational tour that give visitors the chance to learn about and get close to marine animals that the average beach tourist to the Costa Rican Pacific may get to see in the wild, but rarely touch. The tour culminates with the chance to get into a waist-deep pool with Gisy, and, if she’s in the mood, pet the shark.
The tour begins with an introduction about the state of health of the world shark population. The reality is stark, the visitor is told in words and gruesome images, such as that of a hammerhead shark sinking into the blue depths, trailing blood from open wounds where its fins used to be. According to the Eco Shark presentation, more than 100 million sharks die every year.
“That’s three per second,” says Lacayo, adding that some are hunted for their fins, which in some cultures are considered an aphrodisiac and virility booster. Others are caught up in nets intended for other fish, he says.
Working toward the final, promised thrill of touching Gisy, visitors are led first to the Touch Pool for Kids, where people of all ages can appreciate the opportunity to hold a starfish, sea urchin, spotted ray or baby nurse shark. Small children will likely be delighted to wade through the shallow tub as a helpful guide brings the wriggling creatures to their hands.
From the children’s pool, the tour continues to an educational exhibit about octopi, and then to the Disney-inspired Nemo’s Farm. There, kids get a chance to learn about the clown anemone fish, made famous by the 2003 animated film “Finding Nemo.” Various tanks give children the chance to see in real life what to them may have been just a fantasy cartoon character before they walked through the door.
Past the souvenir store and through the laboratory – where visitors learn about the maintenance of the animals’ water, what Gisy is fed, how sharks are born and about the sea turtles that come ashore every year in Costa Rica to lay their eggs – the tour arrives at Gisy’s tank.
Gisy, who has spent her entire life in captivity, was given to Eco Shark by the Pacific Marine Park in the port city of Puntarenas, on the central Pacific coast. According to Lacayo, Gisy had a deeper pool in Puntarenas, but not as much space. The biologist says nurse sharks don’t need a lot of depth, but rather more space to swim circles, something that Eco Shark was able to provide. Lacayo adds that he plans on preparing Gisy this year for an eventual release into the ocean.
According to Lacayo, the nurse shark is one of the most friendly and docile of the approximately 300 species of sharks swimming in the world’s oceans. Gisy is particularly friendly toward girls and women, tour guide Juan Carlos Sotela says. Even so, Eco Shark employees are respectful of her. Sotela explains that he first enters the pool alone and speaks to the shark.
“By the way she moves, I know whether or not to touch her,” he says.
Gisy willing, visitors can climb into the pool with the immensely strong shark, which often swims circles around their ankles, and will even roll over to have her belly rubbed, Sotela says. With surprisingly rough skin that feels like sandpaper, Gisy is pure muscle, and her power can be felt as she flicks her tail and rocks the water in the tub.
Capping off the tour is another pool with a younger nurse shark and several rays –their stingers are regularly clipped – where the hands-on experience continues.
Lacayo hopes that through close contact with Gisy and the younger sharks, people will begin to have less fear and more compassion for the sea creatures.
“You can touch a rottweiler. A rottweiler can kill you in five minutes. Why can’t you touch a shark?” he asks. “Nobody wants to give a hand to the sharks, but if someday you want to have a baby, the shark may be a myth when they grow up.”
Entry costs ¢5,000 ($10) for Costa Ricans and $14 for foreigners, and includes the guided tour. For the tour and to enter the pools, the price is ¢10,000 ($20) for Costa Ricans and $35 for foreigners.
For info, call Eco Shark at 670-1455, or visit www.ecosharkcostarica.com.