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.
The Shark Handling Course
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:
By Jill Smith
Sharks are so important to the health of our ocean's eco-system, but their numbers are dropping radically as they are hunted and culled - sometimes for their fins (shark fin soup is very popular in Asia), and sometimes just for hate.
These beautiful animals are misunderstood, so we will be raising awareness for saving our sharks and improving the health of the ocean. Follow us as we do!
I gripped the bars of the cage as it was lowered into the ocean. Sharks swam in jerky, violent movements all around me, circling, and sometimes charging the fully enclosed cage, jarring it with the impact of the collision, causing me to stagger and tighten my hold.
And they continued their incessant circling.
Looking down past my fins through the bottom of the cage, all I could see was darkness that spanned forever and a day. As I looked fearfully into that dark abyss, the most horrifying thing happened; the cable snapped. I heard the crack of the breaking chain, and the screeching of the equipment resettling above, adjusting to the sudden absence of the weight of the cage. Looking up, I could only watch helplessly as the bottom of the boat became smaller and smaller - the cage was sinking slowly into the dark. Engulfing me. Swallowing me alive.
The realization that I would die alone, in the dark, at the bottom of the ocean, suddenly dawned on me - and then I awoke, sweating profusely, my heart beating wildly.
I never, ever forgot that scary dream.
Many years and three kids later, life was for me as it is for hundreds of thousands of other mothers – busy and hectic. I fretted over the nutrient content of my picky-eaters’ meals, lacing their chocolate cake with pureed spinach (truly). I worried over their social development and scheduled more and more play-dates to secure mental health. I meanly sat them down to their homework every night while dinner cooked on the stove, in order to ensure they may grow up to be anything they wanted to be.
And I tried to keep them safe. I baby-proofed the house, and found myself shouting things like, “Get that out of your (Insert: ear, mouth, nostril or, gulp, other)!”, or, “Don’t stick that fork in the electrical socket!”, and as they got a little older, “Put the stick down and get off the roof!” Sometimes I wondered how they would ever reach adulthood alive; their chances seemed slim – they were determined to try every dumb whacky stunt they could think of – and for my part, well, all the plants in my house were dead (my track record for the care of living things wasn’t the greatest).
But families grow older and things change over time. Nowadays, my shouted refrains sound more like, “If I catch you riding your bike without a helmet again, you are grounded, Mister! Now, go pack. We leave for shark diving in the morning.”
And the girl who had shark nightmares as a teenager? Now dreams while wide awake of cage diving with great white sharks, camera in hand, manic look in her eye.
What happened, and who am I?
Well, simply put, my husband Jody opened a scuba diving shop. And that changed everything.
As I helped my husband work on building his business, the kids and I started scuba diving (two of them are grown and left home now), and I became interested in underwater photography.
Then, in the second year of business, Jody invited me to join him on a "business trip" - a scuba diving trip in the Bahamas aboard the Aqua Cat, a luxury live-aboard scuba cruise. This trip included many interesting opportunities to take pictures: colourful reef systems teeming with marine life, deep wall dives, and a drift dive called the “Washing Machine”, where you drift effortlessly without swimming - the current carries and tumbles you along the way. But the highlight of the week? …the coveted shark dive.
I was torn and scared. I still remembered my dream vividly and wondered if it was a sign to stay away from the ocean. I was a relatively new diver, but as the designer that created my husband’s brochures, managed his social media and website, I needed pictures, and we had not been in the scuba business long enough to have collected very many. I wanted them badly. Plus, we had decided I would begin studying and diving to earn my PADI Advanced Open Water Diver certification. I would be able to accomplish a lot on this trip.
I lay awake long into the nights, stressing about being torn apart by hungry sharks. Visions of them swimming out of the blue, with their mouths open to chew on my limbs haunted me. I couldn’t believe I agreed to this trip.
I was terrified.
I was excited.
My friends told me I was crazy.
Finally we are in Bahamas, and the waiting is over. We had all enjoyed a morning snack, and were relaxing on the sundeck, when Diego the Divemaster’s voice came over the PA system, “Da Na. Da Na. Danadanadana…” (Read: Jaws shark theme of terror right before the great white ate some unsuspecting soul), and then instructing us to head to the Alfresco deck for the dive briefing. I had almost forgotten I was soon to jump into the water with sharks. Almost.
We gathered for the briefing, signed waivers, and Diego made bad jokes while he explained the rules of the dive, and what we could expect. It was pretty simple. We would enter the water, descend together, and find a place to float around the outside of the Austin shipwreck at the bottom. Once the divers were all in place, Diego would come in, pulling the chum ball (a ball of frozen fish on a line), and anchor it to the centre of the wreck’s deck. Then we would watch the sharks swim in to feed on their Popsicle.
Diego also advised us to be on the lookout for a shark they call Finnigan. Finnigan was a shark presumed to have been captured as a juvenile; his captors had carelessly tossed him back into the ocean to die after hacking off the dorsal fin (prized for making soup broth, especially in Asia). However, he had miraculously survived and grown to be a large healthy male frequenting these waters, and showing up for the feed often.
“Let’s go diving!” Diego called, ending the briefing, and I took some meditative breaths as we headed down to the dive deck. The energy was high - nervous energy amongst those of us that were relatively new to the sport. I was glad I had spent some extra time in the pool before the trip to become familiar with my gear. I had practiced taking my mask off, swimming around without it, putting it back on, clearing it, and taking it off again. I wanted no distractions with my gear, while I was swimming with the sharks.
And now it was time to jump in. My husband laughed as I insisted he get in first, and I followed right behind. I immediately put my face in the water to see what was there - couple of sharks swimming far below, and a shipwreck. They were swimming slowly, and everybody (sharks included) seemed relaxed. I took a couple more calming breaths as my husband asked if I was ready to go down.
Hoo. “Yes. Let’s hope I don’t get eaten and I can join you for lunch.”
I was freaking serious.
We descended slowly, equalizing on the way down. I turned slow circles, looking around me, when Jody tapped my arm. I turned to look where he was pointing, and there was a large shark (well, this is no fish tale, lol - to me it was large, but probably it was only 6-7 feet in length), lazily swimming in our direction. He passed within a few feet, but did not seem threatening; on the contrary, he seemed rather uninterested in us. I floated very still, watching him go by. He looked beautiful, sleek, and graceful. I was in awe.
We finned over to the shipwreck and found our spots on the outside of the railing. We were all in place, and watched as Diego pulled the line toward us with the chum ball suspended from it. Sharks and fishes were swirling around the ball like a slow tornado, coming in for a bite, gliding out to chew, and turning around for another go.
Diego tied the line to the anchor, and I remember being mesmerized by the sight. It was beautiful. Their bodies so perfect. Their movements so graceful. I had tears in my eyes watching this special event - I just couldn’t believe I was there watching them right in front of me. It was one of the most incredible moments of my life.
A large grouper drifted up from a hole in the deck to eat bits of fish that were falling from the chum line, and there were many different kinds of fish swimming around the surface of the deck.
I turned to my left to follow a large shark with my camera as it swam out of the inner circle, and a fellow diver, Grant, started tapping my shoulder and gesticulating madly. As I turned back, another shark was passing directly over my right shoulder. I wasn’t sure what I missed, but it had been very close to me.
I was delighted to see that Finnigan made an appearance for the free lunch, and was even able to snap a picture of him as he came in for the feed.
Once the chum ball was gone, the sharks dispersed somewhat, and many divers swam across the deck looking for shark teeth; they often lose them when they feed. I was lingering at the ship’s railing, when I spotted a large female with a hook stuck in her mouth swimming toward me. I turned to face her, and lifted my camera to take her picture, but as she approached closer and closer, I leaned back and pushed my camera forward, bumping her in the nose with my camera light, and she quickly shot off in another direction. I wondered if I smelled like dinner to her. She was curious.
It was time to ascend, so we slowly made our way up, not without a little regret, and enjoyed watching these animals as we waited our three minute safety stop at 15 feet. We could see the legs of the sous chef and one of the crew, who had jumped in with their masks and snorkels to watch the shark feed from above. As we watched, one of the sharks passed between the swimming girls’ legs. I snapped a shot with my camera, and he cruised peacefully past us, seeming to keep an eye on us as much as we were keeping an eye on him. It is a strange feeling to be seen by an animal that I grew up fearing.
Over lunch, Grant asked me excitedly, “Did you get that shot? That was amazing!” I told him I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“There was a piece of dead fish floating over your shoulder, and a shark came straight toward you with his mouth open to eat it - I thought you would have shot a photo straight down his gullet!”
My heart jumped into my mouth at hearing this, but at the same time, I felt ripped off. “Really? My one shot at National Geographic, and I’m looking the other way!” I wailed.
I saved my picture of the shark with the swimming girls for the slide show on the last night at the Captain’s dinner. One of the girls had not seen the shark swimming so close to her and did not believe it when we told her - until she saw the proof.
And as all adventures do, our wonderful week on this scuba cruise quickly came to a close. I was a little changed. I had accomplished 18 dives (out of 25) over the week and become much more confident in my diving abilities. I had swum with rays, turtles, eels, groupers, and Caribbean reef sharks, and did not get eaten. It had been simply amazing, and as we packed our bags to leave the boat, it felt like I was leaving home.
It has become my favourite dive trip, only now, I am the first to jump in the water with the sharks. Strangely, I can’t seem to get enough. It’s funny where life takes you sometimes, but I count my blessings and adventures every day. All our children are now certified open water divers. Our youngest, Sam, is working on his PADI Advanced Open Water certification. And he LOVES diving with sharks.