A Close Encounter
It’s funny, you would think that after a couple of years diving with Caribbean reef sharks, whether it be freediving or scuba, that at some point it would just become monotonous and boring, that I would have seen all there is to see with these sharks. However, my recent shark diving experience proves that this just isn’t the case. This past December I traveled to the Island of Grand Bahama in the Caribbean to dive and enjoy the warm climate, yet my main goal, one that had been planned two years in advance, was to take a shark feeding course from the wonderful and world-renowned shark feeder Christina Zenato. All in all, I had three days with Ms. Christina, and the first day we spent talking about shark biology, conservation, and feeding techniques. Then, in the afternoon I went on the shark dive to observe Ms. Christina feeding the sharks herself. From the moment I started watching I was stunned by how easy and effortless she made it look, and I can tell you from experience that it is much harder than it seems. Even so, I made sure to pay attention to how she fed, how fast she was feeding, and where she was feeding in relation to her body. It was still a lot to take in, but the next day it would be my turn to try it out.
Patrik with Cristina Image: Paige Colwell
I showed up to the dive shop at 8:00 am sharp ready to go. I went and got my fins, mask, and wetsuit out of my locker, we loaded up the boat with the proper gear and food, and then we set off to the dive site. It was a short 10-minute boat ride to the location and once we were there, Ms. Christina went straight into the briefing. For the first dive, I was to watch her feed a few times and then take over. Sounds pretty simple, right? Well it’s not, you have to think about the placement of the fish right on the shark’s nose, looking for the right shark about 5 feet in front of you, your timing, breathing, tempo, breathing, more breathing, and taking a break to pet the sharks to let them calm down after a feed. Ms. Christina makes it look so easy, but there is a huge learning curve. The first couple of feeds, I was a way too high in my positioning so the sharks were coming straight for my face, and I did a couple of Frisbee tosses with the fish, which caused a slight frenzy. However, my last feed of the dive was right on, and I felt like I was starting to get the hang of things. At that point, we were running low on no decompression time, so we decided to go up to have a surface interval before the next dive.
However, even in that very first dive, I got a view of these sharks that I have never had before. In feeding them, I saw that each shark has their own place in line, and each one has its own distinct personality. Some sharks love to be petted and will stay close and linger, while others shy away at the slightest touch. A few sharks love to come right in close to the body and stay for a second or two to get some love, while others take the food and run. It was amazing to see just how different each shark was and how intelligent they were. Certainly, at times you would look into their eyes and almost see a sparkle of amusement, and the whole time, the experience was amazing. It reminded me of being in a pile of puppies, each one struggling for attention, or in this case the fish. Our surface interval was up, and it was time to embark on the journey of putting on the 25-pound chain mail suit, which took at least 5-10 minutes to put on. Once everything was on, I felt like a medieval knight ready to do battle with, in this case, gravity. We then strapped on our tanks and regs and hopped into the swarm of sharks in the water. We made our way to the feeding site on the bottom, took off our fins, and then walked to the spot where it all happens. The way you feed involves walking backwards along a line to build up a scent trail for the sharks to follow, so I started out with the feed tube and started walking to build the trail, all the while petting any sharks that came by to acclimate them and calm the animals down. Then it was time to start feeding, and this dive went great. I had three or four perfect feeds and I was as happy as a clam. We came up and I swear I had a grin the size of the Grand Canyon on my face. It was so amazing to be surrounded by these apex predators, and yet all the while I felt no fear or threat from them, I was perfectly safe. I will tell you though, feeding sharks sure is tiring, and I had no trouble falling asleep that night.
Patrik in the mix. Image: Paige Colwell.
Then it was the next day, my final day of feeding, and my parents came along to observe. I didn’t notice until we reached the bottom how nervous I was with my parents watching me, but it had a significant impact on my feeding. I was mistiming, misplacing, and it just was not good. So, for the second dive, my parents stayed on the boat and I went down to have my final feed with no pressure. But, half way through I noticed a coral head near the sight move and I realized that my parents were down watching me, hidden behind a coral head. All was well though because before I noticed them I had managed to get into the zone, relaxed and focused, and I had a fantastic final feeding, getting in about 6-8 almost perfectly. To top it all off, one of the sharks that Ms. Christina knew very well came in and was able to be put into a tonic state. Ms. Christina gently maneuvered her into our laps, so that we could just watch and love on her. It was amazing to see this formidable predator in such a vulnerable state, and it truly showed the trust that Ms. Christina had built over the years with her group of finned friends.
I genuinely cannot remember a time in my life that I was truly afraid to be in the water with a shark; I’ve always had a fascination and respect for them. However, this experience put that respect in a new light and only increased my empathy for their plight. I was able to see up close and personal the intelligence and beauty of these creatures. They are by no means mindless, but individuals that exhibit different traits and preferences. For me, this makes them more relatable, more human-like if you will, and because of that I feel an even more pressing need to be there for them and help them as if they were my friends. I know it seems strange, but I know I would do anything to help my friends in any way possible, so why should these sharks be any different? That’s the question that I keep asking myself, but even more so I think about what I can possibly do to help. Honestly, I think that’s the real question we should all ask ourselves. We have a responsibility as the ones who caused the damage to bring about its repair, but more so I think we have an obligation as friends on the same planet to support these animals and their fragile environment. This encounter really showed that we are not alone on earth, we are truly all in this together.