How to Friend a Tiger Shark: The Making of a Supermodel

Posted on June 7, 2011
Written by: Jim Abernethy

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Today I'd like to tell the story of Jamin, a 10-foot female tiger shark, and how she became a supermodel on my expeditions on the Shearwater. Tiger sharks are incredibly curious, intelligent, and quick learners. It only took once incident, my removing a hook from Jamin's jaw hinge, to turn her from a cautious wild shark into a friend.
Wild Sharks, Players, and Supermodel Sharks
Basically I call sharks that have never been around a friendly shark expedition boat like mine "wild sharks". Those are sharks that never come in close because they are scared. Eventually, over a period of time, they swim through the groups, and those I refer to as "players" as they start to lose their sense of fear. Eventually, sometimes after months of swimming through the divers, they lose more and more fear and even allow us to remove parasites and sometimes even allow me to remove hooks. These sharks eventually become supermodels. A supermodel comes in when we arrive, never leaves at all, hovering in circles among us rather than simply swimming through the group.

Our most famous supermodel is Emma, who starred in the film This is Your Ocean: Sharks and who has appeared on countless magazine covers. To start with, Jamin was just an unnamed wild shark among many other tiger sharks. There was nothing in her behavior to distinguish her from the other sharks who would show up intermittently. This changed back in September 2010 when I removed a hook that was wrapped around the hinge of her jaw.

I was in the water with a group of divers when I noticed this shark swimming around with her jaw open. On closer inspection, I saw that a hook went all the way through the hinge on the right side of her jaw, pinning her mouth open so that she couldn't fully close it. At the time, I felt sorry for the animal and thought that if she came in close enough again I'd do what I could to remove the hook, because I didn't know if I'd ever see her again. I could see that the sharp part of the barb was cutting away at the outside of her skin, and the part where the line goes through the hook was showing as well. So she was actually hooked from the inside right through her hinge.

She did come in close, and I grabbed her with my left hand on top of her snout, and pushed down with my right hand, straddling her back while clinching her between my knees. I removed the hook from her jaw with my right hand, and as the hook came out of the hinge, she tried to bite me. In fending her off, I let go of the hook and jumped off her back, but the hook got caught on the skin flap on the outside that had been rubbed raw. I think the hook might have been worn a bit, because it wasn't very difficult to get the hook out of the hole in her jaw, even with the barb attached.

Removing the hook from her jaw hinge didn't seem to bother her much, because she didn't swim away. She started exercising her jaw by opening and closing her mouth, even though the hook was still hanging on the outside of her mouth. When she swam back over to me, I was able to get the hook out of the little skin flap. It seemed to the other divers that she was being very aggressive, swimming around opening and closing her mouth as though she wanted to bite something. The truth is that this was the first time in I don't know how long that she had been able to open her jaw and exercise it, much the same way you would flex a joint after an injury to loosen it up. The fact that she didn't leave indicated to me that she was very happy about having her jaw freed.
This photo, taken on a later trip, shows her mouth healing nicely.

Sharks are incredibly intelligent, and several studies have shown that they are capable of learning not only from direct experience but also from other sharks. Jamin Shark had obviously learned not to fear our group of divers from previous visits with other sharks, or she would never have come close enough to allow me to grab her and remove the hook. Once I freed her from what must have been a very uncomfortable impediment, she became a super-affectionate, friendly player, and eventually a supermodel.

We decided to name her Jamin Shark after Jamin Martinelli, the captain of the Shearwater. I hadn't really remembered Jamin Shark from previous visits, before the hook removal, but Captain Jamin took a personal interest in Jamin Shark and found pictures of her from earlier shark dives. Jamin Shark showed up at every site we went to for months, and has become a very, very popular shark, a true supermodel. Jamin Shark has healed up very well and her wound is barely visible today. You can follow news and events about Jamin Shark on Emma the Shark's Facebook page.

Obviously, you shouldn't try to remove hooks from any species of shark unless you know what you are doing. There is always a chance you could be bitten. Sharks, however friendly, are still wild animals. And they are in desperate need of our protection. Let's all join together and do everything we can to save sharks. I urge you to support Shark Savers programs to create shark sanctuaries and ban the use of shark products. Every donation helps.

Jim Abernethy
Scuba Adventures
www.scuba-adventures.com

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