Shark Tonic Immobility | JONATHAN BIRD’S BLUE WORLD

This time on Jonathan Bird’s Blue World,
Jonathan learns how to relax a shark! Hi, I’m Jonathan Bird and welcome to my
world! For some reason, many kinds of sharks, when
they’re held upside down, go into a sort of “relaxed state.” Back in the first season of Jonathan Bird’s
Blue World, I visited shark researcher Kanesa Duncan who was working with baby Hammerhead
sharks to learn how fast they grow. Her work with the sharks was made much easier
because she could put them into that relaxed state, called Tonic Immobility. So I wondered…would it work underwater? Meet Neal Harvey. It’s just practice. It’s just repetitive
practice, over and over and over… Or as I like to call him, the “Sharkmaster.”
He is a world-renown expert in shark tonic immobility because his job is to do it every
day. Neal is a shark handler at Stuart Cove’s
Dive Bahamas. It’s hard to believe what a cool job he has: every day he introduces
divers to wild sharks! And part of his job is to show people the
gentler side of these big fish. Neal shows divers how wild sharks can be pet
like puppies, if they are first put into tonic immobility. Neal has a remarkable rapport
with these sharks. Would it be possible for me to learn a little
bit of Neal’s amazing technique? To find out, Cameraman Tim and I fly down
to Nassau, Bahamas. Our mission: to meet the Sharkmaster and get some personalized instruction
in shark tonic immobility. On the dock, Neal and I discuss the plan for
the day. We’re going to go out south, to the AUTEC
buoy, out in the middle of the trench, and try to bait for some Silky sharks. He explains that the best way to start, is
for me to try tonic immobility with smaller sharks. Juvenile Silky sharks are easy to put into
tonic immobility in the classic way, by flipping them upside down. This technique only works
with small sharks. The trick is finding some Silky sharks. We load the boat for a trip way offshore to
a place where Silky sharks are sometimes seen. Captain Clee J sets a course for the U.S.
Navy AUTEC Buoy. It’s more than 30 miles offshore, in the open ocean where Silky sharks
live. Part of the Navy’s advanced submarine testing
range, the AUTEC Buoy is tethered in 5,000 feet of water. Because large floating objects
in the open sea often attract marine life just like reefs, sometimes there are silky
sharks here. But overfishing has severely reduced the population. Neal throws some chum into the water while
Captain Clee J makes some fishy snacks. We suit up for a shallow dive….in very deep
water. The water is an endless sea of blue. And there
is nothing here. Perched on the hanging chum box, Neal patiently
breaks off little chunks of fish to make a trail of bite-sized shark snacks leading right
to us. His efforts pay off. After what seems like
an eternity, a single Silky shark shows up. I film her at a distance as she circles us,
munching the bait. But she’s on to us. Neal just can’t seem
to catch her. We chum patiently for 2 hours, but finally
we have to admit: we’ve been skunked. Back aboard the boat, we head for home. It’s
a long ride home with nothing to show for a day’s work. And without the Silkies as
a warm up, I’m going to have to jump straight to the much larger Caribbean Reef sharks with
no practice. The next morning under cloudy skies, we load
the boat and head out with captain Densel only a few hundred yards. This is where they
feed the Caribbean Reef sharks. Now the real fun begins. I get to wear a stainless
steel chain mail suit. Yeah, that’s the back so you’re gonna
step into them… Wait a minute, wait a minute. Wait. Someone
got their butt chomped. Yeah. That’s not good! Wait a minute, does this
stuff work? If a shark bites me wearing this, only the
points of the teeth can get through the links in the metal mesh. Between that and the thickness
of my wetsuit, I should be fairly safe from any bites. Neal and I are joined by Cameraman Tim and
Daniela Buttarelli, one of the other senior shark feeders at Stuart Coves. He has a very
important job today—to be my safety diver and watch my back! You need a sword, you look like a medieval
knight! Neal wears chainmail on his head because yes,
the sharks are big enough to bite your head! Daniela sets me up with a plastic helmet. Neal hits the water first while the rest of
us finish gearing up. Neal will take the chum box down to the bottom
and start feeding. The sharks are used to this routine. Every
day one of the shark feeders comes down with food, so when they hear the boat pull up,
all the sharks start to come in from around the reef. Back on the surface, I’m jumping into a
shark convention, with Cameraman Tim right behind me! Caribbean Reef sharks have the classic heavy-bodied
sharky look with gray-over-white countershading. They reach 3 meters long—the length of a
couch, and well over 100 pounds. As a general rule, these sharks are not aggressive
towards divers. But they definitely know that the guy with the bait box is going to feed
them. So when Neal shows up with food, it’s like someone rang the dinner bell. Within minutes we are all surrounded by dozens
of big sharks. They almost line up to take turns swimming by Neal for a snack. Neal has this down pat. He tells me where
to position myself for great shots of the sharks grabbing the fish off the end of his
feeding stick. I’m right up in there close to the feeding,
so Daniela is right behind me keeping an eye on things. Sometimes two sharks go for the same piece
at once and they get a little pushy, but in general, they’re actually pretty good at
taking turns. I don’t really feel threatened at all. When a small Nurse shark wanders into the
scene, Neal sees an opportunity. He quickly grabs the shark and flips her upside down.
He has to do it quickly, because if he doesn’t get the shark into tonic immobility fast,
she will bend around and bite him. While she’s upside-down, the Nurse shark
relaxes. This is classic tonic immobility. But this is a small shark. How would you ever
do that with a shark the size of a Caribbean Reef shark? I’m about to find out. Can Jonathan master the art of tonic immobility?
The sharky excitement is about to get wilder! One of the sharks comes in close and Neal
begins to gently stroke the underside of her snout with his fingers and she calms down. Sharks have pores on their snouts and face
called Ampullae of Lorenzini. The Ampullae of Lorenzini are electroreceptors—tiny organs
designed to detect electrical currents in the water. They help sharks hunt in low light
by allowing them to sense the minute electrical signatures of living things. Biologists think that Neal’s stainless steel
glove causes some kind of sensation in the sharks’ electroreception. Maybe it feels
good. Or maybe it feels weird. However it feels, it tends to make sharks calm down into
a state of tonic immobility. It doesn’t mean they are paralyzed or “in a trance,”
they are just very mellow. And they’re not upside down. If this shark were a cat, she would definitely
be purring. And you have to admit, she’s kind of cute! Just to show me how relaxed the sharks can
get, Neal lifts her up vertically for a shark hug. When the shark has had enough, she perks up
and swims away, joining the other sharks for another round of snacks. It’s clear that the sharks actually enjoy
this. As I film, I notice certain individuals keep coming back to Neal for more attention.
They nuzzle right up to him like a kitten. Neal wants to show me how it’s done, so
I put my camera down and come around… I hate to keep using the cat analogy, but
this really is just like rubbing under a cat’s chin. I get the feeling she would sit here for a
long time, but when Tim brings the big camera in closer, she spooks. But there is no question—that was awesome!
I pet a shark!! For the next phase of my shark training, Neal
gets another shark mellowed out in position and has me get up alongside the shark. While tickling the nose and with a firm grip
on the dorsal fin, all I have to do is… Fail. Clearly this is not as easy as it looks. Neal finds another candidate and even proves
it can be done. Now all I have to do is not mess it up. I take my position….and hopefully, the third
time is the charm. Whoa! This thing is heavy. It’s no wonder
sharks sink! “Look ma! I’m liftin’ a shaahk!” I’m just going to go ahead and say it. That
was really cool! But now it’s time to get back to what I
do best: filming. And Neal is going to do what he does best—being the sharkmaster.
His ultimate demonstration of shark tonic immobility is holding a shark vertically on
its nose. But finding the right animal in the right mood requires patience. I film quite a few impressive shark maneuvers… Not all sharks are up for it. Pretty soon Neal is flipping sharks left and
right. Neal could do this all day—and so could
the sharks. So Cameraman Tim gets himself a front row seat. Those of you who are shark experts have probably
noticed that so far, all of these animals have been female. In general, the females
are more cooperative and it’s fairly rare to get a male to do this. But towards the end of the day, even one of
the males wants to join the fun, with a most impressive one-armed headstand! As the last dive comes to an end and we head
back up to the boat, I have to smile because I get to do the coolest stuff. Sure, we struck
out with the Silky sharks. But I learned how to pick up a shark underwater, and I got to
watch in amazement as Neal Harvey demonstrated just how gentle and docile sharks can be.
It’s just another reason why sharks are so cool. And another reason to fall in love
with the Blue World!

local_offerevent_note December 26, 2019

account_box Gilbert Heid


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