Swim with Rays and Sharks

Surrounded by rays and sharks

There’s some pretty slick experiences on The Great Australian Bucket List, and some quirky additions too. I researched activities and destinations online, in libraries, with the help of tourism organizations and local advice, and sometimes, I just followed my nose. We were driving up the Central Coast of New South Wales to Port Stephens when I saw a sign along the highway that read something like the title of this post: Swim with Rays and Sharks. Now I’ve dived with rays and sharks, and I love this big creatures, so when I Googled Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters and discovered this was an activity I could do with my kids, without heading out to sea, my bucket list antennae started pinging.

The smooth ray hug!

Sharks and stingrays get a bad wrap.  Although horses and kangaroos kill far more people than sharks each year, the ocean’s apex predator gets ravaged in the press, and… then there’s the Steve Irwin thing.  The reality is that most animals are harmless if you leave them alone and don’t give them a reason to attack. Although that doesn’t stop rays and especially sharks being slaughtered, according to one report, around 100 million sharks are killed each year, which is having a devastating impact on the marine eco-system. Husband and wife team Ryan and Lia Pereira are working hard to change our perception of these creatures.   They took over a hands-on shark and ray aquarium in Port Stephens and have turned it into Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters, devoted to busting harmful myths, and educating visitors about marine conservation.  With over 200 animals, we couldn’t wait to slip on a wetsuit and get into a series of pools with curious Southern Eagle Rays rays, friendly Port Jackson sharks, cuddly Blue Spotted Mask Rays, massive Smooth Rays and 3-metre long Tawny Nurse Sharks.  The kids were freaked out at first, some of these creatures were bigger than them after all, but after a while my daughter warmed up to the cuddles of a huge curious smooth ray, yes the same species that resulted in the tragic death of Steve Irwin.   The indoor facility itself is a little rough around the edges, with the feel of a two young kids doing their best to make a difference despite the operating costs. Given the challenges of operating a tourist attraction with the central draw being creatures that inspire fear and awe, it looks like it would make a great setting for a movie or TV show.

The kids are not convinced, yet.
Feeding a 3 metre-long nurse shark: Tick that one off the bucket list!

There are three main pools, including a little pool for the smaller kids to stand and also feed the rays, a larger pool where you can get a birds eye photo of yourself surrounded by swirling rays, and a large pool adjacent with the Nurse Sharks. There’s also touching pools and various displays to educate visitors about the different creatures. Wet suits are provided by the facility, and the utmost care is taken to ensure the animals are healthy and looked after.

Ryan and Lia’s devotion and passion for their animals is inspiring, and the lessons they impart on visitors of all ages is vital.    In the words of David Attenborough:  ““No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”

Learn more about Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters

Directions to Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters: When leaving from Newcastle follow the signs to Nelson Bay, at Salt Ash you will precede through 2 Roundabouts. About 5 minutes later you will find a Caltex on your left, directly after it turn left onto Marsh Rd. Follow Marsh Rd for about 4 minutes then at 686 turn right into Irukandji. All in it’s about a two and half hour drive from Sydney.