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To Hold a Shark Close

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Animal Updates | Sharks | Volunteering

Thursday, March 26, 2015


To Hold a Shark Close
To Hold a Shark Close. Me with Senior Aquarist Nicky and Fern the Zebra Shark.

A Hugh Haiku:

“Grand Shark in my Arms. You’re more Disney than Shark Week Sharks are Friends not Foes.”

It was an offer I could not refuse. Senior Aquarist Nicky asked if I wanted to participate in a training session in the water with Fern, a large Zebra shark. Oh course I said yes and donned a wet suit.

As I waded around chest deep in Shark Lagoon the first thing I noticed was a large shark fin slicing through the surface of the water towards me. Before I started volunteering at the Aquarium of the Pacific a sight like this would have elicited primal fear responses in my body and a nervous rendition of the “Jaws” theme in my mind. “Duun dun. Duun dun. Dun dun dun dun…..!” Now it just brings a smile to my face. I knew it was Fern coming over to check us out.

Just like with sea otters and sea lions, positive reinforcement training had made this large Zebra shark a willing participant in husbandry behaviors like the one she and I were about to perform together. A tactile session. Or as I like to refer to it, Hug-a-Shark.

At first Fern swam around our legs in figure 8s like an affectionate cat looking for attention. Nicky then brought Fern to the surface and had me hold her. Soon after I had her cradled in my arms Nicky gave Fern her food reinforcement. This positive reinforcement built up the idea in Fern’s mind that good things will happen when people hold you.

The first thing I noticed while holding her was the characteristics of her skin. When I ran my fingers from front to back the skin felt smooth but when I ran my fingers from back to front it felt like an emery board. Shark skin is covered by layers of dermal denticles which are more like tiny teeth than fish scales. They all face the same way thus one direction feels smooth while the other feels like sand paper. To me shark skin felt a lot different than the slick cetacean skin that I had prior experience with during my dolphin and whale rescue days years ago. Compared to dolphin’s skin, shark skin felt almost armored-like.

Fern was surprisingly calm while I held her. Nicky had trained her well. After a bit we turned her over onto her back. These behaviors were trained so that the Aquarium staff could get a good close look at her body during veterinary exams. It actually seemed like Fern was taking a snooze while we had her upside down. At this point I was thinking she reminded more of Sherman from the comic Sherman’s Lagoon than JAWS.

Even though I had known Fern since the early days of the Aquarium of the Pacific and had even hand fed her back in the days when the mammal staff regularly helped out the aquarist staff with their duties, this was the first time I had ever held her in my arms. And she’s a lot larger now than 15 years ago! I love the fact that Fern’s training dispels many of the web and television stereotypes of sharks being just mindless killing machines. Me being in the water holding her so close is proof enough.

You never know what kind of experiences you’ll have as a volunteer at the Aquarium of the Pacific. I can now add shark hugging to the list.

A couple more Hugh Haikus:

A shark has taught me: Enjoy TV and Web Docs. But always fact check.

Memorable day. I hugged a great gentle shark. Love volunteering!
To Hold a Shark Close
Fern is very calm while being held during her training sessions.
To Hold a Shark Close
These tactile behaviors help in Fern's health care. It also gave this volunteer a chance to hug a shark and help dispel some stereotypes about them.
To Hold a Shark Close
Senior Aquarist Nicky did an outstanding job training Fern in husbandry behaviors.

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