by Jill Smith
The decision to do this for myself was without a doubt one of the best decisions I have ever made; I shall never, ever forget it.
Words cannot express how beautiful it was to experience the Caribbean Reef Sharks up close and personal! I had been dreaming of this very special trip for some time, and I will always treasure the memory of standing in the middle of a swirling group of graceful reef sharks.
The Shark Handling course
The instructor, a highly accomplished shark consultant, and conservationist - Cristina Zenato. I have been following Cristina on social media for a couple of years (I like to think of it as research, rather than stalking, haha), and was impressed with all of the work she does in the interest of ocean conservation and saving sharks; I knew I wanted to learn more.
This course includes classroom time with Cristina, learning about shark behaviour, biology, and how to interact and feed them on the upcoming dives with her. After that, it is time to get ready to dive; a total of 5 shark dives near Freeport, Grand Bahamas, to provide you with the experience of a lifetime!
So we made it happen, and before I knew it, Cristina was helping me with my chain mail, and we were jumping into the turquoise waters to meet her babies. Cristina visits them often (see below to learn more about her work), so as we descended, they were already swimming nearby. We arrived at our spot by an overturned wreck, and removed our fins at a depth of about 45 feet. I was surprised how balanced and stable I felt walking on the ocean floor in chainmail. It was far more comfortable than I expected.
We spent a few minutes just breathing and relaxing there, while they swam around us. Holding a feeding tube full of dead fish in my left hand, I simply watched them all around me. I needed about ten eyeballs to take it all in. I didn’t want to miss a thing.
Remembering what Cristina had taught me in the classroom, I reached out to place my hand on the top their heads, and let my hand trail down the length of their bodies. This motion is meant to replicate the way I will feed, and build my confidence.
It was just amazing. I was in awe the entire time. There I was, standing in the middle of circling sharks with dead fish in my left hand, and they weren’t attacking me. Sometimes they bumped into me. Sometimes they would swim between my legs. Over my shoulder. In front of my face. Everywhere. I loved it. Every minute.
I kissed a shark, and I liked it…
I found that some sharks will not tolerate touch. So you don’t touch. Some allow it. Some seem to seek touch. On one of my last dives, Foggy Eye (she has an injured, scarred right eye), swam right into my belly. I lightly stroked the top of her head, and she immediately relaxed and began to sink. Cristina came over right away to assist, and she was gently lowered to the ocean floor. Cristina pointed to her dorsal fin which was slightly curved, and demonstrated very light stroking on the top of her head. After a couple of minutes, Cristina pointed to the dorsal fin pointing straight up, and indicated that Foggy Eye was “out”, meaning that she was sleeping, if not extremely relaxed. I bent over to look at her face. Her bottom jaw was working to take in water, and it was being pushed over her gills for respiration. Her good eye remained open (meaning her nictitating membrane was not closed over her eye), and I could see the “pores” of ampullai lorenzini on her face (electroreceptors), that help her sense electric fields in the water.
And then I kissed her! The denticles of her skin are smooth (ish) when you stroke “with the grain”, but rougher if you were to stroke the skin “against the grain” – feeling a little like sandpaper.
My first attempt at feeding a shark was not only clumsy, but I broke the golden rule: do not drop the fish. When feeding, you choose the right shark, and feed that shark, and everybody is happy. If you drop the fish, they all get agitated looking for the fish. They really aren’t as adept at locating their food source and eating it as I would have thought.
When I decided to feed a shark, I leaned down and reached into the feeding tube. I grasped the dead fish as I had been instructed, and I prepared to feed. I had my eye on the shark that was going to get his snack, and pulled the fish out, only to panic at the last second and fling it at his face! OY! I knew I wasn’t supposed to do that, but it happened. And she missed it. I didn’t see who finally got it, probably one of the horse-eyed jacks that were prowling around (they are fast)! In fact, my second attempt at feeding resulted in a jack stealing the fish right out of my hand! It is good that Cristina is a very patient woman!
But I did finally do it correctly, and fed a couple of sharks the right way. It was so exciting! The video frame grab above has some motion blur, but it shows the jaws right after they have closed around the fish!
Ooops, Shark bite!
My very last dive, and I was feeling great. I reached out to touch the top of an approaching shark’s head, and I guess the nature of the movement led a shark approaching from the side to believe that maybe I was offering fish. I saw the jaws extend up and out, and chomp down on my right hand! Before I could even process what happened, she had realized that I wasn’t fish, released me, and was swimming on her way. I had felt the squeeze of pressure when she bit me, but the chainmail did its job, and I was not injured. WOW! That was pretty incredible!
Unfortunately, my event did not get captured on video (I would have like to see the look on my face)...damn!
Cristina removed a fishing hook...
This is more dangerous than the feeding of sharks, so I observed from the sidelines. Not all sharks wish to go to sleep with some well-placed strokes, so Cristina aggressively entices the hooked victim in to her with fish, feeds her, and then tries to pull the hook out. Of course, it hurts, and the shark flails and escapes to avoid the pain, yet I was surprised to see it return to Cristina over and over again, until finally the large hook was removed from its mouth. Pretty incredible to watch! Cristina loves these sharks so dearly, she really tries to do whatever she can to help them. She lamented that it saddens her to see them injured or sick, and she is unable to do anything to make it better; while she can take her dogs to the vet if they are ill, these sharks are pretty much on their own. And mother nature is a cruel B%#$!
And so ends a beautiful dream… thankfully my memories remain. Every time I see these sharks I love them even more.
What differentiates a shark from other fish?
Sharks may be identified by their cartilaginous skeleton (only the dentical-type structure of their teeth hardens like bone when exposed to salt-water), large exposed gill slits on the side (usually 5), and unlike other fish, sharks do not have a swim-bladder for buoyancy control, but rather an oil-filled liver.
The swim bladders of fish allow them control of movement and position in the water (like our BCD’s), but because sharks lack this, if they stop swimming, they sink.
All sharks swim to move water through their mouths, and over their gills (ram ventilation method), thus absorbing the oxygen from the water. Some species can only respire this way, and must swim continuously to get the oxygen they need (white sharks, mako sharks, and whale sharks). Some species have spiracles (holes behind the eyes of some species), to assist in taking in water to move over the gills.
Others also use the “buccal pumping” method to draw water into their mouths using muscles of their lower jaw, and over their gills while resting on the ocean floor (nurse sharks, angel sharks and even reef sharks can do this, to name a few).
Although it is commonly believed that sharks have poor eyesight, they do in fact, have excellent eyesight. Behind the retina is a tissue of mirrored crystals called “tapetum lucidum”. It enables the shark to contract and dilate its pupils much like humans do. Other bony fish do not have this. Instead of light entering the eye being absorbed, the mirrored crystals reflect it back to the retina, lending the shark much better vision in darkness. Further, a shark’s underwater vision can be up to 10 times better than humans!
With over 500 known species in our oceans, these incredible animals are so much more than the imagined picture people often “see” when they hear the word “shark” – all too often associated with a strong, negative emotion. Yet, the word “shark” can refer to a species as small and benign as a dwarf lantern shark, fitting into the palm of your hand at 7 cm, or a school-bus sized whale shark, filter feeding in plankton-rich waters.
Many species are now endangered or threatened with extinction; their numbers have dropped worldwide by over 80%, and despite their bad reputation (thank-you Hollywood), they are a critical part of maintaining the health of our reefs and the ocean. Sharks clean the reefs and oceans of sick, injured and dying or dead fish, and keep other strong predators in check. As shark populations are on the decline, our oceans are in grave danger. Our oceans must be healthy to sustain life on land; it’s all a big circle, and we are all connected!
PADI Course Director, NSS-CDS Full Cave Instructor, and TDI Extended Range and Advanced Nitrox with Decompression Procedures Instructor. Inducted into the Women’s Scuba Hall of fame in 2011. Public Speaker and advocate for ocean and shark conservation.
Cristina is a dive operation manager, and instructs recreational, technical, and shark courses. She is shark consultant, and participates in shark research around the world. Aside from removing hooks and parasites from the sharks she loves so much, she collects data and cartilage samples periodically for marine scientists to support research. She is the first woman to have connected a fresh water inland cave with a salt-water ocean system.
Cristina has developed a Caribbean Reef Shark Awareness Distinctive Specialty and was the initiator of a campaign that resulted in the complete protection for all species of sharks in the entire Bahamas. No wonder Bahamas reef systems are so healthy!
Most of all, her goal is to change the negative perception that people have about sharks. She works tirelessly to save sharks and support conservation efforts around the world. Even Singapore invited her to attend a conference to speak about the necessity of protecting sharks, and how detrimental the practice of “shark finning” is to world’s oceans.
A big thank-you to Cristina for working so hard to save our sharks and keep our oceans healthy!
What is finning?
Every year, thousands of sharks die a slow, agonizing death because of finning. Sharks are captured, their fins are brutally hacked off, and they are carelessly tossed back into the water where they drown or starve; they are helpless. Their fins fetch a good price, and shark fin soup is considered a delicacy in Asia, served at restaurants and weddings.
The video below is thirteen and half minutes long (cut down from well over an hour). It is still pretty long...if you are interested in what it would be like to take the shark handling course, it may help give you an idea. If you would like to fast forward to near the end, there is a resting shark, and you can watch the buccal pumping respiration as she rests on the ocean floor.
By Jill Smith
While we were in Cancun this July for our annual whale shark swim, we experienced something new, wonderful, and unexpected! We did not realize that the eastern facing beach in Cancun where our resort (the Golden Parnassus) was located, had a sea turtle conservation program working in full swing due to the high volume of mama tortugas (turtles) coming onto the beach at night to lay their precious eggs.
Nearly all species of sea turtles are labelled as endangered; without the help of the resorts who gladly participate in sea turtle conservation program (the Mexican people love their ocean, and are so happy to help their marine wildlife), these nests might otherwise be destroyed. While unintentional, tourist life on the beach is a hazard to the survival of these nests (think about beach volleyball, tractors raking and grooming the beaches every day, etc), not to mention the natural hazards of land and sea-bird predators. We did wake up one morning to find that a sea turtle had nested in the middle of the volleyball court during the night, leaving a fairly deep 3 foot in diametre hole. Adorable!
Many resorts along this strip, including our own, had fenced nurseries, where they re-bury the eggs after mama has laid them. They are protected from foot traffic and predators, and each nest is labelled with the date the eggs were laid, the species of turtle, and number of eggs. We saw nests posted of eggs from Caguama tortugas (loggerhead), Blanca (white sea-turtle), and Chelonia mydas (green sea-turtle). It’s wonderful to see this effort on the turtles’ behalf.
Jody and I had lots of questions for the lifeguard, who participates in the program. He was very patient to answer them all, and actually, I think they are just as interested and happy to share. A little later, he approached me, and asked, “Would you like to see a nest of white baby sea-turtles hatching?”
“Ummmmmm let me think… DOES A WHALE SHIT IN THE OCEAN??? HELL YES!!!”
He advised us to meet him by the nursery in 20 minutes. I wasn’t letting him out of my sight though, so I stalked him back to the nesting area. We were SOOOOOOO excited, I can’t even tell you! WOW! OH BOY OH BOY OH BOY!
Reading the plaque, I could see that the eggs were laid on June 1st. It was now July 21st - 50 days have passed. The lifeguard starts digging down, very gently, and soon, we catch the first glimpse of a turtle fin! I asked why they don’t allow them to dig out on their own when they are ready, but he says, they want to collect them, keep them safe, and release them when the pelicans and sea-birds aren’t a threat (just after dark). And soon the hole is erupting with all of these wiggly, beautiful, perfect little sea-turtles! Even the markings on their faces are already there. Collected in a sandy basket, we had to wait a couple of hours for the sun to go down, and then we took them to the ocean to let them go. Part of me didn’t want to release them, because I know most of them are facing certain death out there (maybe only 10% will survive), but that is the nature of things…
Hopefully they have been given their best chance!
But that’s not all.
After dinner, around 10:30, Jody and I go for a walk on the beach, and don’t we come across a mama loggerhead sea-turtle making her way up the beach to find a place to lay her eggs. Seriously, how amazingly crazy is that? I thought my head would pop off from the shear excitement of it all. We stayed well back, and sat on a beach chair to observe quietly from a distance. The conservation guy (Fernando) was also there, standing back to observe, so we got to whisper our questions to him. We couldn’t take pictures, because flashes and lights will scare a mama back into the ocean before she has laid her eggs, so we could only squint and watch in the dark.
It took her a little while to decide where she wanted to nest, but she finally decided that under the lifeguard station was a good spot. Her powerful front fins can really throw sand! We saw sand flying several feet into the air as she dug a bed for herself. Soon, she was so deep in the hole that she was just below the sand surface. That is when she starts scooping out a hole with her back fins. Fernando says that her back fins can scoop much like our hands can (cupped). After the sand was no longer flying, and she was still and quiet, he said, “Come with me, we are going to check her now. Quietly.” OHMYGOSH!!! He and his colleague used red lights to see, as this is the least disturbing to mama turtle. Fernando handed Jody a pair of gloves to wear to help collect the eggs, while I took pictures the best I could in the darkness. I got to stroke her shell; Oh my gosh I love her. A mama sea-turtle can lay 50-200 eggs at a time, though we were carefully collecting them and placing them in a bucket for re-burying, and did not count them at that time. Presumably they are counted as they are placed in the new nest.
We thanked Fernando and started walking back to our resort, and we came across several large holes in the sand, and there was even another mama turtle in one of them! Jody ran back to tell Fernando, and he came with a flag to mark the spot so they could retrieve them later. There were still more sea turtles coming up onto the beach to lay…so many!
What an experience!
Best day ever!
Bravo to the Mexican Conservation Authority and the Resorts that are invested in this program! Let's hope that the efforts made today make the sea turtle populations and oceans healthier tomorrow.
By Jill Smith
Rhincodon Typus (Whale Shark)
Fresh from our Whale Shark trip... and it was awesome! Although these beautiful beasts may be found in tropical waters all over the world, they are not commonly experienced by divers and snorkelers. That makes our encounter with them extra special!
Luckily for us, hundreds of these gentle giants congregate to feed around the Yucatan Peninsula and the Gulf of Mexico from June to August, so planning our encounters has been relatively easy. We have a good relationship with Solo Buceo Dive Shop* in Cancun, which helps to make it an amazing adventure!
Whale sharks are filter feeders, and although they are the largest fish in the ocean, they feed on the tiniest creatures, barely visible to the human eye; they can grow up to 40 feet in length, so naturally, they have to eat almost continuously! These animals can live to be over 100 years old (if they are not hunted by humans). Females are larger than males. The more you learn about these fish, the more fascinating they are!
Whale Shark Photography
Traditional underwater photography rules still apply, such as holding the camera as steady as possible. If you are snorkeling, try holding your breath as you squeeze the shutter release, and of course, try to keep your shutter speed fast enough to freeze the action. The shark is moving, the water is moving, you are moving. If possible I want my shutter speed set to 1/125 or faster.
In Mexico, you are permitted only to snorkel with whale sharks, and whale sharks glide across the top of the water, so your experience with them is shallow. And you know what shallow water means… more natural light! Strobes need not apply!
Whale sharks are enormous; they can be as big as a school bus, and that means you need to consider your lens. A wide angle lens and/or a dome port will help a great deal in terms of fitting these overgrown puppies into your frame. A wide angle lens and a dome port offer a couple of advantages:
Lining up the shot
Never try to out-swim a whale shark. They appear to be swimming slowly, but their fins are bigger than yours; you will exhaust yourself trying to keep up, and you won’t be able to hold the camera steady at the same time anyway. Try to anticipate the trajectory of the whale shark swimming in the water and intercept its path, or wait for a swim-by.
You can see in the photo below, that Trena has floated patiently in the line of the shark’s path, and the shark came straight towards her – right in the mouth! What a great experience! Husband Rick watches in awe. We all found it to be an awesome experience!
If it is possible, shooting up at the animal often results in a more dramatic and pleasing shot. A little freediving practice won’t hurt!
Photography and Protecting these Darlings
Did you know that whale sharks are listed as “endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species? Your photography can actually contribute to the global effort to protect and learn about amazing whale sharks!
Link to Red List of Threatened Species: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/19488/0
How Can Your Photography Help?
The patterns and scarring on whale sharks are as distinctive as a fingerprint, allowing scientists to identify individuals for long-term, mark-recapture analysis. If population models can be created to give conservation management authorities a better understanding of the habits and stressors on these animals, then well-informed plans may be developed to take action for their preservation.
How do I Take Photos for Wildbook and Whale Shark Conservation?
Submit Whale Shark Identifying Photos to:
Thank you for contributing to this global effort to protect the whale sharks!
* Solo Buceo Dive Shop (Cancun)– Have diving needs in the Cancun area? Visit Solo Buceo, and tell them Adventure Sports Newmarket (Jody) sent you! You won’t be sorry; their service and dive expertise will make you a very happy diver!
Want us to make your diving arrangements for you? No problem! 905-898-5338
OMG, is this really happening?
By Jill Smith
Shark week is coming July 23 -30, but before you tune in to the Discovery Channel, I would like to remind you to take their films with a grain of salt; scary sharks and dangerous situations are sexy, and they sell, but it isn't exactly realistic or even fair. Sharks deserve better. SO important to the health of our oceans and reefs, we need to protect them, not kill them. We should be far more afraid getting into our cars, than diving on a reef; seriously, I should hire a narrator to narrate my drive to the airport; his deep voice, ominous tone, and story-telling ability will have you on pins and needles waiting to find out if I survive the commute: "Jill knows that one wrong move at this point could mean certain death in a fiery crash..." LOL
I'm Signed up for Shark Handling, Baby!
So, in the name of Shark Education, and Shark Conservation, I am super excited to be heading to the Grand Bahamas the second week of August to take the Shark Handling course with Cristina Zenato! WHAT?! OMG, YES!!! This is an experience I have been dreaming of for some time now, and I think I might burst from excitement!
I will be spending my mornings learning about shark behaviour, shark biology, and shark conservation, and in the afternoon, I will be rocking a chain mail suit over my 3 mil, and interacting with sharks under Cristina's direct supervision. WOW! WOW! WOW!
I used to be TERRIFIED of sharks!
Until Jody bought the dive shop, and I started diving with him more frequently in the Caribbean, I was terrified of sharks. Even on our honeymoon, when we went snorkelling to see the turtles, I panicked halfway out and made him turn back ("GO BACK! GO BACK! WE'RE GONNA DIE!"), because I kept imagining a big shark coming at us with jaws open, out of the blue gloom. Sadly, we never got to see the sea turtles on that trip.
I obviously watch too much TV.
Then, I remember when we booked our first AquaCat Scuba cruise, how I fretted about their coveted "shark dive". I'm telling you, I had dreams of my bedroom filling up with blue, glowing water, and becoming infested with sharks (good grief, I hardly got any sleep). I was very anxious about that dive; when the time came, I refused to get into the water until Jody got in first. Then I watched and waited for a minute. Nope, he did not get dragged under by a hungry shark. So with a hope and a prayer, I jumped in with him, and held his arm tightly as we slowly descended. At some 40 feet of depth, Jody tapped my arm and I looked to see what he was pointing at. There she was - a Caribbean Reef Shark, swimming by, minding her own business. She was calm. She was big and beautiful. And she couldn't care less that I was there. She took my breath away. I was in LOVE; hook, line, and sinker.
BEST. DIVE. EVER.
In 2000, Peter Bencheley, the author of Jaws, said that he would never have written the book if he had known the damage it would do to the reputation of the great white shark. Peter has since been an advocate for sharks, trying to help people appreciate their beauty and how necessary they are to the health of our oceans. He said that because of their fearsome reputation "no one appreciates how vulnerable they are to destruction".
Who is Cristina Zenato?
Let me introduce you to Cristina Zenato; she is an incredibly accomplished scuba diver, and I have admired her for a long time, not only for her numerous accomplishments, but for her positive approach to life.
She is the first woman to connect an inland fresh water cave to a salt-water ocean system, she was inducted into the Women's Dive Hall of Fame in 2011, and she has been studying and participating in shark research across the globe for years. Beyond even that, she has developed her practice of inducing a relaxed state in sharks, enabling her to safely remove fish hooks and parasites from the animals. You would think that the sharks would avoid contact with her, but to the contrary, they appear to seek her touch.
Among other things, Cristina instructs the Shark Specialty course, the Shark Handling Experience, and the Shark Handling Course.
Simply for love.
Motivated by the love of sharks, and love of the ocean, she has dedicated her life's work to protecting and honouring both. Cristina initiated a campaign that resulted in the complete protection of all species of sharks in the entire Bahamas, and her objective is to help people appreciate how beautiful, precious, and important sharks are to our world oceans. What an amazing lady - I can't wait to meet her!
What's it going to be like diving with Cristina and her babies? Dunno! I will let you know! Certainly for myself (and, of course, for anyone who is interested in knowing more), I will be documenting my experience through blog and journals. I will not be taking my camera on this trip, as I will be directing my full attention to Cristina and the sharks. Cristina's videographer will be documenting my shark handling dives for me, however, so I hope to have a visual keepsake of this exciting journey!
If you would like to learn more about Cristina Zenato, see her videos, and photos, visit: