A Diver Discovers the 7 Levels of Shark Awareness From Fear to Familiarity; One Divers Journey

By Paul J. Tzimoulis

A Diver Discovers the 7 Levels of Shark Awareness A Diver Discovers the 7 Levels of Shark Awareness From Fear to Familiarity; One Divers Journey By Paul J. Tzimoulis Level one: The very first time I dipped a fin into the ocean, I was seriously concerned about sharks. Come to think of it, I was terrified. Having learned scuba diving in the freshwater lakes of Connecticut, I found a plunge into the murky waters of Long Island Sound indeed a traumatic transition.

Peering into the misty gloom of a less than clear ocean causes ones imagination to work overtime. All of those early shark attack articles in magazines had made their imprint on my subconscious and now it was working against me. It took a lot of concentration and discipline to avoid thinking about monster sharks. This was the late 1950s and little was known about shark behavior.

Needless to say, I survived that first confrontation with my own psyche and went on to make many happy, pleasurable dives in New England waters. Yet, the concern over sharks never quite left me. I guess it is normal for all of us to fear the unknown.

Level two: The first time I saw a shark, I immediately ascended to Level Two. The event occurred on a 30 foot deep coral reef in The Bahamas. My dive buddy and I were casually exploring marvelous coral formations and enjoying the spectacular visibility when a five foot shark blithely swam across our path. I was so stunned I didnt even attempt to take its picture. It happened quickly and naturally;the shark was there one moment and slowly swimming away in the next.

After it disappeared into the blue haze (and did not return), I realized I was not scared. That was partly because the shark made no menacing move toward me and partly because it was such a beautiful fish with such graceful movements. That I felt no fear made me ecstatic. For all these years I had been afraid of being afraid, rather than fearing sharks.

Then I experienced the second emotion: anger. The shark had totally ignored me. How insulting! For years I had imagined humans were sharks preferred appetizers and now, on my first encounter, I had failed the chum test. This shark couldnt care less about me or my dive buddy. Maybe sharks werent so bad after all.

Level three: With new found courage, I set out to find and photograph sharks. Little did I know that my first encounter on that early Bahamas trip might be my last for a long time. During the ensuing years I made many exploratory trips to the Caribbean, seeking dive adventures. I found plenty of adventures;but no sharks. I visited Bonaire repeatedly;no sharks. I traveled to the Cayman Islands, to Belize, to Roatan, to Jamaica, to the Virgin Islands, to the Turks & Caicos;no sharks.

Slowly, the realization came into sharp focus;it is really hard to find sharks, especially if you want to dive with them. Apparently sharks are very fussy about where they live and when they make an appearance. Sharks are scarce in most areas where divers go;what a concept!

Level four: I started looking for sharks in other places;caves, crevices and ledges. I found bottom feeders;mostly Nurse Sharks. It was a start. Some of the sharks were small (four to five feet) but occasionally I would encounter a really big Nurse Shark measuring 10 feet long. It looked a little bit like a big brown cow sleeping under a coral ledge;not exactly the classic vision of an ocean marauder.

A Nurse Shark doesnt look much like the stealthy hunter you see in most books and movies. It doesnt behave like one either. The species spends most of its daylight hours snoozing on the bottom, usually inside a narrow crevice, in a coral cave or under a coral ledge. It hunts at night, inhaling small crabs, lobsters and other reef animals. It does not possess the razor sharp triangular teeth of a demon shark but rather a strong jaw and lots of tiny, needle-like teeth. Obviously, unless it tried to gum one to death, this species could not do much damage to a diver.

What I did learn (from other divers) is not to harass this harmless creature, as it can turn on a diver in a split second and lock on to an arm or leg with a vice-like grip that is impossible to escape. There are stories about divers being pulled aboard boats with Nurse Sharks still attached to a leg or arm.

From my experiences with Nurse Sharks, I learned two important facts. First, there are many species of sharks that pose no threat to divers. Second, regardless of how slow moving or docile a shark may appear, never yank its tail!

Level five: Perhaps the greatest revelation of my diving career was the beginning of shark feeding sessions. At certain destinations, divemasters with extraordinary skills began feeding sharks by hand! Some offered the food on the end of a spear, others tied the food to an immovable object such as a coral head and the courageous feeders actually offered the food with an outstretched hand.

The results of this process were almost unbelievable. The sharks took the food and ignored the hand. What made the event so fascinating was that it could be repeated over and over again. The sharks were trainable;just like dogs, horses or other animals. Sharks, I realized, were not just eating machines, they possessed intelligence!

To make matters more interesting, visiting divers could observe the shark feeding process at close range. I found myself standing in the middle of a pack of hungry sharks, being bumped and jostled while they competed for the food. It was an incredible experience;partly because of their amazing speed and superior strength and partly because I was still alive. All sorts of emotions came tumbling out: terror, exhilaration, fascination, admiration, intense anxiety and tremendous relief. It was the ultimate thrill.

Toward the end of the feeding session, another realization came to mind like the ringing of a bell. These sharks were after the food, not the divers. They had been conditioned to eat a very narrow diet, comprised mostly of fish and fish scraps. Divers were not on this menu. What appeared to be a very dangerous situation was really quite safe. The fish feeder had total control of the food and, therefore, total control of the sharks.

For months after this event I related this experience to many people, only to be greeted with blank stares or looks of incredulity. People who have not dived with sharks find it difficult to understand this concept. Looking back on it, I suppose I would feel the same way if someone walked up to me and began to excitedly describe jumping into a pit full of hungry tigers that were ripping apart their lunch.

Level six: As a seasoned veteran of Level Five, I really thought I knew all about shark diving. No shark was too dangerous, no situation too difficult. Sharks were only interested in food and divers were completely safe as long as they watched our step and did not threaten the shark. Boy, was I wrong.

No matter how safe a shark species has been declared, there are times when things can get out of hand. This realization came to me during a visit to Rangiroa Atoll in French Polynesia. We were making a pelagic dive about a mile outside the pass, operating from an inflatable. Below us was the great blue deep extending downward 300 to 500 feet. Our quest was to photograph a community of Silvertip Sharks measuring six to nine feet long.

We had barely reached 50 feet when I observed six Silvertips rapidly zigzagging up from the deep like Polaris missiles. They were fast, excited and very aggressive. The situation did not feel right. Our small group of five divers immediately formed a tight group, while the Silvertips circled us in tight formation.

Our two French dive guides never took the lid off the feeding bucket and I knew something was wrong when they pulled out their knives in preparation for fending off the sharks. Sure enough, the encircling sharks began boring in on us like attacking fighter planes;sometimes nipping at our fins or bumping our legs. No one had to give the signal;we made a strategic withdrawal to the surface and into our boat.

In broken English, our French dive guides explained that the Silvertips had obviously entered their mating season. The bite marks on the sides of the big sharks were clear evidence of mating behavior and it was not the time to be diving with these 400 pound huskies.

In discussions with other shark diving enthusiasts, I have learned that certain species of sharks can be nonaggressive and aggressive at different times of the day. For example, Silky Sharks in the Red Sea can be perfectly safe for diving during the morning or mid part of the day. Yet the very same sharks can become extremely aggressive toward divers in the late afternoon, as this is their normal feeding period.

It may be perfectly safe to dive with many species of sharks, as long as you fully understand their behavior cycles. Knowing when not to go into the water can be a critical factor in your safety.

Level seven: It is not enough to identify which species are dangerous and which ones are not. It is not enough to be able to recognize the species you are confronting. It is not enough to know their mating season, feeding times or territorial boundaries. Level Seven is the most important, yet the least definable level of shark awareness. It is the ability to recognize the subtle differences between individual sharks and the way they may react to your presence.

Much like humans, sharks have individual personalities. Some can be bullies while others may be as gentle as your pet dog. Some can be brazen and aggressive while others are very timid. And even the most mild mannered shark can have a bad day, just like people.

I became aware of these subtle differences while observing shark feeding sessions at UNEXSO in Freeport, Grand Bahama and at Stuart Coves Dive South Ocean in Nassau. Although all the sharks engaged in the feeding sessions were of the same species (Caribbean Reef Sharks), behavior differed from shark to shark. While most would be quite well behaved, there was always one or two that were more aggressive than the rest. They were the ones that usually rushed in first, made harder contact with the feeder and pushed the situation to the very edge of control.

It seemed to me these sharks might actually bite the feeder if they were given the opportunity. Needless to say, the shark feeders were always on their guard, ready to back down these testy sharks. You could feel the tension of the situation. Professional shark feeders will tell you they cannot trust all sharks, even though they may work with them every day. Much like lion tamers, they must not let down their guard for even a moment. Sharks can be moody, get frustrated or just downright nasty at times. The trick is to recognize these changes in behavior and be ready to deal with them.

My progression through the seven levels of shark awareness has greatly changed both my life and feelings towards sharks. Originally I feared them; now I have come to love them. Sharks are truly some of the most graceful and beautiful creatures in the sea. We can learn much from them.