by Jill Smith
Update October 11, 2019: Cristina's segment on loving and saving sharks with Blue Planet Live
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 have been dreaming of this very special trip for some time, and will always treasure the memory of standing in the middle of a swirling group of graceful reef sharks. Oh, my...
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, and I was excited to meet this interesting and amazing lady!
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 liked 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.