When I was in French Polynesia this summer, I went on a "sharks and rays" snorkeling excursion off Bora Bora. I had previously visited the Cayman Islands' Stingray City a dozen years ago, so I was somewhat surprised when, upon arrival at the Bora Bora site where rays gather, our guide simply urged us overboard without giving any instructions about how to avoid getting stung.
I quickly gave my 11- and 13-year-old boys a safety briefing, but when we got into the water, I understood why the guide hadn't issued warnings: These rays had no barbs. In fact, some had very little tail at all.
My guide confirmed they had been cut off to prevent tourists from being stung.
"It doesn't hurt the stingrays," he added quickly.
SeaWorld and operators of attractions that involve interactions between humans and dolphins are coming under fire from critics who question the treatment of marine mammals in captivity for the purpose of entertainment.
I haven't seen the documentary "Blackfish," which intensified criticism directed at SeaWorld and dolphinariums, but I have long been made uncomfortable by the increasing manipulation of animals in their "natural," wild settings for the benefit of tourism.
What exactly does one learn about nature when nature is altered? What do we learn about stingrays if we aren't told why a ray has a stinger, and how to avoid getting stung?
With the exception of excursions at the Brando, organized tours in French Polynesia were discomforting in this regard. Although my guide was respectful, I saw others who were not. Eels were prodded out of their holes so visitors could see them at full length. One guide grabbed the fin of a black tip reef shark and went for a ride. On a tour in Rangiroa, our guide told guests to "just walk on top of the reef" to get from one small island to another, even though that activity is very damaging to reefs.
We swam with sharks three times, and each time they, like the rays, were lured by food thrown in by tour guides.
Unnatural nature excursions are by no means limited to the South Seas. I've seen large mammals baited in Asia and watched guides shine spotlights on predators trying to hunt at night in Africa. In South America, anacondas will be driven from holes and pinned down for visitors to touch.
I've also had many experiences where guides educate visitors about the importance of patience in animal viewing and take pains to avoid being disruptive.
And frankly, on a purely visceral level, I find it's much more exciting to see animals by chance than to get a guaranteed viewing through the use of bait.
When I have discussed these issues with offending tour operators, I've been told that behavior such as riding with sharks, prodding eels out of their caves and flushing and pinning anacondas is a reflection of local culture. The guides have interacted with nature in this way from the time they were children, and I am applying my Western values to a local culture.
Different societies certainly do view animals differently, and the local guides whose behavior I'm criticizing live closer to nature than I have. They no doubt have learned a good deal more about the behavior of these potentially dangerous animals than I ever will.
So how does one reconcile the Western position of noninterference with the local view?
A clue may be found in a statement I heard in a completely different context.
I attended a Disruptors conference organized by Virgin Group Chairman Richard Branson last week in New York. The adventurer Bertrand Piccard -- the first man to circle the world nonstop in a balloon, and who hopes to fly around the world in a solar-powered plane -- was a panelist on the topic, "The Future of Travel."
The discussion focused almost exclusively on technology, but Piccard, whose grandfather had set altitude records in the 1930s and whose father was the first to reach the deepest underwater trenches, put adventuring and the stewardship of Earth in a more philosophical perspective.
We have already reached the upper limits of the atmosphere and depths of the sea, he said. We have scaled the highest mountains and explored almost every corner of the Earth. "Everything has been conquered. And now the mission is to protect everything we've conquered."
Our mission as travelers and guides involves some enlightened self-interest. It's true that there will always be Westerners who will pay to simply be entertained by the manipulation of nature in the wild and local operators who will oblige them. But the global industry brands -- major hoteliers, cruise lines and tour operators -- can also let it be known that they prefer to work locally with those whose mission aligns with protecting and respecting nature in as natural a state as possible.
A stingray sting can certainly ruin a vacation, but nature excursions that distort nature do nothing to enhance them.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.