Thanks to Hollywood, people tend to see sharks as mindless killers, with the ominous fin promising a bloody end.
Not to one man at least. Fazhrid Abdul Karim, an aquarist at S.E.A. Aquarium, is Singapore’s first shark whisperer.
But Fazhrid was no shark lover from the start.
A dream come true
“Since young, I’ve been an avid fan of National Geographic’s documentaries and dream of someday working with animals. So becoming an aquarist is a dream come true for me,” he said.
In 2013, Fazhrid became part of the Large Exhibits team at S.E.A. Aquarium, which takes care of species like sharks and manta rays. Despite looking after more than 11 species of sharks and coming into close contact with them during feeding and habitat cleaning sessions, he has never developed a special liking for them.
All that changed in 2014 when he met the legendary shark whisperer Cristina Zenato.
Cristina has the astounding ability to lull these ocean’s apex predators into a trance-like state called tonic immobility. She does so by rubbing their ampullae of Lorenzini – the pores around their nose and mouth which act as electroreceptors for them to detect nearby prey. This gentle rubbing action brings on a natural paralysis which can last for up to 15 minutes.
In August 2014, as part of Shark Month to educate and raise awareness about sharks, S.E.A. Aquarium invited Cristina over to demonstrate tonic immobility.
Fazhrid: “When I first watched her video on tonic immobility, I was amazed by how that was even possible. I didn’t know anyone else who could do that so I was raring to learn.”
Taking the plunge
Training under Cristina meant paying out of his own pocket to learn at her dive school in the Bahamas. After about nine months of deliberation and planning, Fazhrid finally contacted Cristina who scheduled him for his course in 2016.
Fazhrid: “I am grateful for the support of our Assistant Director Andrew Clarke. He is from the Bahamas and knows Cristina. He helped me with the arrangements and got his friends to take care of me when I was there.”
During his 10 days in the Bahamas, Fazhrid picked up critical shark handling techniques, such as proper ways to touch them, how to handle their different behaviours, as well as learning to read their body language. Here’s a video of him being mentored by Cristina, and successfully putting a shark in the state of tonic immobility.
Back at work, he continued to hone these techniques during his daily interaction with the sharks in Shark Seas habitat. His efforts paid off.
First aquarist to hand-feed sharks
Over time, Fazhrid managed to build a bond with the sharks and discern most of their individual characteristics.
Fazhrid: “I spend a lot of time observing them. How they behave towards humans and other sharks. Some of them will just circle around me, some prefer to avoid me while others will rub their body against me.”
He then took the next step: hand-feed the sharks, a first at S.E.A. Aquarium. Usually, aquarists place the shark feed at the end of the feeding stick instead of using their hands.
“My favourites are the female Sandbar Sharks. They always swim over to me, almost like a pet. Sometimes they even slap me playfully with their fins.”
Fazhrid is a picture of calm throughout his hand-feeding session where he is often seen petting some of the sharks, like in this video below:
Man on a mission
While all these may seem like the antics of an adrenaline junkie, Fazhrid is anything but. He is on a mission to change people’s perception of sharks in order to conserve them.
In reality, sharks are shy creatures and avoid humans unless provoked. It is possible to build a bond between humans and sharks. It all boils down to mutual trust, respect and understanding. There’s no need for fear.
“By hand-feeding the sharks, I hope to prove to people that sharks are not mindless man-eaters.”
So what’s next for this shark whisperer?
“I hope to swim with the Great Whites in South Africa sometime in the next two years. But before that, I need to learn how to free dive.”