I started to work with sharks in 1995 and put my first shark into a relaxed state a few months after beginning to work with them. As actions evolved one day, I found myself lifting the shark into a vertical position and holding her there for a few seconds before she woke up and swam away.
People surfaced amazed, and that move became my signature for a few years. I realized that when people saw that image, they would be mesmerized and, at the same time, curious about what they were observing. Usually, after witnessing such a moment, the statement I would receive was, “I didn’t know sharks could do that.”
I took the opportunity to open the door to share facts and information about sharks, facts versus myths, and exciting stories that would change people’s perception of sharks and challenge their own beliefs. It was 1995 when I was interacting with people, or the images and videos were either viewed through a magazine or a TV program, and I could control descriptions and captions.
When the internet started to take over communication, the situation changed, and the wide spreading of the images without proper context started. Reactions began to change.
In a way, the internet expanded the message’s reach, but it also contributed to warp it, creating a weird phenomenon.
People started to contest the validity of the fact that a shark could balance on her nose on my hand until she was ready to swim away by challenging the size. Comments similar to “I want to see you trying to do this with a tiger shark or a great white” appeared, tarnishing the simple amazing event in front of their eyes. It became a contest that evolved into people trying to simulate the same behavior with bigger and bigger sharks independently from the technique used but to obtain a split of a second image to boast with on the internet. The process of connecting with the shark and the event that allowed the diver to put her into a vertical position transitioned into trying to push the shark nose down while the animal was swimming forward, creating a reactive tail lifting, where the shark appeared to be in vertical. The shark was no longer allowed to relax and decide to stay in a vertical position.
A measuring contest substituted the original meaning of surprise and interest. Size, not the unique experience, started to matter.
The same happened when the news about me removing hooks started to circulate. The same challenging question about removing them from Tigers or Great Whites appeared spoiling the focus of the action to alleviate pain from sharks. The fact is that doing the right action is not a contest on size or species. I work with Caribbean Reef sharks, and it is natural to want to help and protect them. Once again, the scale became relevant and a comparing factor. With this attitude, the attention shifted from the animal to the satisfaction of the personal ego.
Size does not matter when we decide to use our skills for the advantage of another creature, and it should not be a matter of comparison in success or failure.
Cristina working with blacktips, Fiji
What we should do, instead, is consider size when interacting with the different species. I act on the belief that one size does not fit all. There are over 500 species of sharks, and when we decide to dive, interact, or enter the world they live in, we need to start learning that each one is built and acts differently. In this case, size does matter. We need to understand that the way we relate to tiger sharks has to be different from the way we do it with nurse or whale sharks. The fact that we can dive and act with specific species with one technique should not be the baseline by which we found all our actions. Knowledge provides understanding and safety for when size does matter.