Teaching Tonic & Respect for Sharks

Posted on July 6, 2012
Written by: Cristina Zenato

(or..."How to Hypnotize a Shark Without Concern for Your Fingers")

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I have been working with sharks for over 16 years. I started right here, where I am now, at UNEXSO, with Caribbean reef sharks under the great tutelage of Ben Rose, “Uncle Ben” for me. Ben saw my passion and love for sharks and, sure enough, in a matter of a couple of years I was the head of the shark feed training and handling here.

From there to here it has been a fantastic adventure, not only with “my babies”, as I love to call them, but with many more experiences as I have taken the time to explore a little bit around the world. I wanted to know more about sharks – I am not a scientist, my background is in hotel management and languages; I speak five of which English is not my mother tongue.

I started with books. I could never find enough good books about sharks, and I have collected over forty of them through the years. I also traveled to meet other people who were working with sharks or studying them. I am lucky being in the Bahamas, there are numerous shark species and activities on my doorstep, and I took advantage of the opportunity. In between, I traveled near and far to meet more people and more sharks; South Africa and Fiji being my furthest destinations traveled for sharks. I have more destinations in mind and more sharks experience on my list, but all in due time.

Then came a wave of attention to sharks. It is a wave I have been waiting for for a long time. I started talking about shark conservation back in 1996 when people, especially in the Bahamas (a country traditionally not interested in shark fishing) thought sharks were far from threatened and definitely did not need much protection. I am glad the wave of attention for sharks is here, and I am glad my little work has allowed some attention to the sharks.

With the attention to my work with sharks – a work I love for the simple pure pleasure of being in the water with them, nothing more, nothing less –  came also the desire of others to experience the same. The shark-handling course was born.

I teach people, regular divers, to do what I do, under my direct supervision, of course. I have had 379 people attend it and with them came enormous satisfactions and tremendous heartaches. I love sharks. I cannot tire of saying it; there is a deep, happy feeling when I am with them, especially when I am with “my babies”, doing what I do. The feeling of having a 9-foot animal relaxing in your lap is somewhat indescribable. I do not have children, but for me, sitting on the ocean floor and being able to feel the shark gently opening and closing her mouth to ventilate, her body weight over my thighs, her shying away from outside disturbance back into my lap is as rewarding today as the first time I did it and looked up, and there he was, Uncle Ben, smiling and nodding his head in approval. Even back then he knew, he saw it in me. I love Uncle Ben as much as I love the sharks. They go together, with their calm demeanor, with their peaceful pace, with their place in the world without struggles, without demands, but just to be.

There is nothing like home I said once, and I say it again. Being underwater with sharks, any sharks, watching them and interacting with them, depending on the species and the situation is the most relaxing part of my day, of my travels, of my life. And when I share my knowledge, my feelings, my passion for sharks, but especially for my sharks I always hope that people will ‘get it’ and embrace it.

The divers who attend my course have varying and different motivations, but in general they are positive and they are curious to see and feel what I see and feel. Some students really do ‘get it’. After the first one or two dives I know already who has it and who doesn’t. Those students who have it will have those special sparkles in the their eyes, that relaxed breathing, and that cricked smile through the regulator which says it all. Some will have a chance to feel that, but it will not reach their hearts and they will break mine, when they go home and blog, write, and publish: “How to put a shark into tonic immobility and not lose a finger”, emphasizing the adrenaline rush that this kind of activity is supposed to trigger or the tremendous risk of losing an arm then realizing that you did not. All my teaching gone, all my talking, sharing and showing forgotten in the average use of overly glorified words: infested, adrenaline, razor-sharp teeth. My heart aches because I thought I showed something new, something different. We stood together with food in our hands among twenty sharks and not one of them approached us to bite. We stood and they circled us with their slacked jaws so they can ram ventilate, brushing us and touching us, not once attempting anything but waiting until that food came out of the container. We dived with them unprotected because we had no food and they knew the difference. I thought I opened one more person’s eyes to the liquid beauty of a shark shadow over the white sand and I lost it, at the touch of their fingers on a keyboard.

 


 

Cristina Zenato is Head of Diving at UNEXSO, Grand Bahama Island, a world-renowned shark diver, and a member of the Women Divers’ Hall of Fame. Cristina is sharing her considerable knowledge of and experience in diving with sharks through a new Shark Savers' blog series. This is the fourth in the series.