(14-01-11) Stroking a shark can be thought something crazy. But Noel López, dive master in Los Jardines de la Reina, expert and defender of these animals, thinks differently.
Most of the times we are used to refer to the marine environment only talking about the inhabitants, fish, and we talk about human presence just to criticize as a killer phenomenon. But it is not always like that. Sometimes man is perfectly adapted and respectful to the marine ecosystem. An example of this is Noel López, dive master in Los Jardines de la Reina, a real institution of diving on the island.
Noel López would be, undoubtedly, a media celebrity if he had been born in an Anglo-Saxon environment instead of in Cuba. But things are different here, despite the fact he has everything to be a star in the world of underwater documentary.
Our protagonist was born in Camagüey in the West- central area of the island. Thanks to his father he started in the world of angling and later on with spearfishing. In 1987, when he finished his studies, he bought his first diving equipment, the classical bitraque a Mistral by Spiro. With friends, he starts to dive as self-taught, reading with passion any book he got about dive theory.
Very early he begins to collaborate with the SEC (Sociedad espeleológica de Cuba), the oldest scientific institution in Cuba, and in 1989 he begins his career in the diving world. One year later he gets the title instructor CMAS*, title that would become ***. Some years later, he begins to work in a new project, which will be his consecration in the diving world. We are talking about Los Jardines de la Reina, where he is since he began. There he discovers a new passion, one that he will never leave: his love to sharks.
Los Jardines de la Reina offer ideal conditions for marine biodiversity, and for the last chain link: sharks. There is a very rich ecosystem, very well kept, where human presence has never been too much. It is calculated that there are more than 200 species of fish in these waters, what provide a wide diet to sharks.
On the other hand, the physical structure of the place itself, with many islands and cays, as well as a huge reef slope, very deep in some places, allow the presence of very different habitats that allow the existence of several species. The great abundance of mangroves and shallow waters is other important characteristic, very important to calves, which find shelter and protection under the roots of these forests.
The different oceanographic conditions, with the presence of currents with much plankton or the annual tuna’s journey collaborate to keep this diversity, to which the human being has help recover, for once. They are six the more frequent species and, except for the whale shark, it is easy to see them all in one single place; but maybe the most surprising thing is that only a small area of the entire reserve has been explored (1,400 km2), but it is for sure that there are big surprises to be discovered.
History of an approach
When dive operations were started in Los Jardines de la Reina by Avalon, sharks were less than now. It would take some years for protective measures to work and they had to try to fix sharks as an attraction for the incipient underwater tourism. To do so they began to feed sharks, slowly. The protagonists were the most frequent species, like silky sharks and Caribbean reef sharks, but they also tried the giant hammerhead sharks.
Little by little the animals began to rely and approach to the diver. A basic principle was not to feed them from the hand to prevent that accidents happened, and, especially, that the animal could associate hand with food. This way they contacted sharks. Noel and his colleagues began to stroke the small silk sharks, and from that contact they reached the “paralysation”, which is one of the main hallmarks of diving in Los Jardines.
Noel and his colleagues discovered that sharks stayed paralyzed when they were put upside down and a little twist was made in their tails. Slowly, the technique was perfecting and today it is a great incentive of this diving. The animal does not suffer at all, there is no violent reaction and that allows an approach impossible in other circumstances.
Love to sharks
Our protagonist, with these precedents, is a true sharks’ lover, it could not be otherwise. To him, sharks are special animals that, despite its closeness and trust, he never loses respect.
It is a pleasure not only diving with Noel, but also talking to him in the deck of the nice floating hotel La Tortuga, base operations in Los Jardines de la Reina. More than 6000 dives offer many anecdotes, and he tells us with a pleasant and lilting Caribbean rhythm. Besides being a great diver he is a remarkable storyteller for sure.
It is a spectacular image Noel jumping into the water the first one, being literally surrounded by sharks. More than 20 silky sharks mill around the ship and our friends jumps there without any qualms. He appears surrounded by then with no problem. There is no feeding here, there is no feeding frenzy, only a “different shark” in the water. When Noel “hypnotizes” the sharks he is always very careful not to hurt them. He strokes them with care, as if they were docile kittens and not the wild animals they are.
Underwater their behaviour is similar, we could say that it is even more shocking, since besides silky sharks we have the great Caribbean sharks. In this case Noel introduces some fish in the cracks of the reek so that the smell attracts the animal, but he never feeds them. He moves with elegance underwater. His large body becomes graceful underwater; he looks like an inhabitant of the depths.
His faithful friends the silky sharks are waiting for him to begin that real ritual. Our main actor grabs them firmly but gently by the dorsal fin and then, turning them upside down, the sharks are paralyzed. When he lets them go, they come back to activity after a few seconds, after Noel strokes them once in their “belly” as a sign of appreciation and respect for their collaboration.
As evidence that this practice is harmless is that there were only 3 or 4 silky sharks at the beginning. Today, there are more than twenty, and the most important thing is that they do not need the human being to feed. They are given little fish, only bones and heads, and, when tuna comes, most of them leave the area to pray on those fish.
Text and pictures: Juan Carlos García and Miguel Ángel Cerezo