The path to a dream: the story of a zoologist

To be in the Maldives, in the tropics, on a beautiful island, in the middle of a huge blue ocean, to dive headlong into it with scuba diving, surrounded by hundreds of different bright fish and, first of all, among huge tiger sharks, and tell people about them, and not horror stories, but facts and help see animals, not monsters! Here is my job!

My name is Nikita Kornilov, and I'll tell you a little about how I got to this life.

Let's probably start from the very beginning - from childhood and the film that everyone probably watched - "Jaws" (1975). It was from this film, which I watched at the age of five or seven, that everything began, but it comes out ironically. The film, which frightened many with the image of a man-eating shark, aroused my keen interest in these creatures and, in fact, determined my life and professional path. Thanks to comrade Spielberg, what else can I say?! I don't know who I would be if it wasn't for his film. Actually further, away we go! All my childhood I watched documentaries about animals, instead of cartoons, especially films by Cousteau, Steve Irwin, films by the BBC studio, and, of course, Nikolai Nikolaevich Drozdov, as an example!

According to the books, the same story, everything that I could find about sharks I found and read excitedly. And even now I am still looking for and collecting such books, because they are very rare. If I went for a walk somewhere, I always dug under the stones, catching bugs and spiders. I can say that I found a calling right away, I was lucky in this regard. At school, in fact, the subject was my favorite - biology, by and large, I almost didn’t study it. Although I did not immediately come to understand this. And then, before that, I wanted to become a submariner (on a submarine, and not like now), a subway driver, a paleontologist, a pilot, and in the end I became an ichthyologist! When it was time to choose where and whom to study, biology was almost the only option.

At first, of course, I tried to get into Moscow State University, to the Faculty of Biology, but it didn’t work out, the competition there is extremely high. As a result, he entered the Timiryazev Agricultural Academy named after K.A. Timiryazev, to the Faculty of Animal Science and Biology, in the direction (we do not have a specialty there) biology. I remember well how, while still an applicant, I came to the admissions office where there were tables of different faculties with advertising brochures, and the Faculty of Animal Science and Biology stood out because there were live animals to attract attention, like rabbits, lizards, snakes in terrariums, and even a tarantula, then it became clear — this is where I need to go! Well, then there was a study in biology, 4 years of undergraduate and 2 years of magistracy. But I must say an important thing, I didn’t learn anything new about sharks there. What they told me about them I knew at the age of 12, probably, and much before the popularization of the Internet. Everything I learned about them, I studied myself from the sources that I could dig up - documentaries (including in the original language), very few books, even less often articles. In addition, few people at the university supported my desire to devote my life to the study and popularization of these animals. Most often, teachers said something along the lines of “this is not promising! This is for those abroad, we have our own things to study, stop doing garbage! It is necessary to describe and study domestic fish, especially commercial ones, to feed the people! There are no sharks in Russia, but why study them then?! (by the way, there are not only katrans)”, stuff like that. Moreover, I heard such answers not only from teachers at my university, but also at Moscow State University, where I hoped to find colleagues with an interest in these animals. Alas, no matter how much I searched, I did not find any experts on sharks, or at least simply on cartilaginous fish, or cases or ways of scientific cooperation on these animals, perhaps I searched badly, but so far I have not found anything and no one in this matter in Russia. Many of them only saw an embalmed shark. As a result, I had to write my first thesis on pike, there were simply no other alternatives for obtaining skills and knowledge in the field of ichthyology. I successfully defended my bachelor's thesis, but even then I realized that under no circumstances would I go to work in fisheries and with commercial fish in general. This is not mine, and the state of this matter in our country, to put it mildly, is not important, although it is certainly necessary and should develop, I hope it will be so. However, in the process of training, I got a job as a laboratory assistant in the aquarium laboratory at the academy, where I received the primary skills of an aquarist and, in general, learned how to work with them and maintain them. Even this gave me much more pleasure and practical skills than working on fish farms or with commercial fish in general. At home, I never had an aquarium, but here there were a lot of them to the fullest. And this played a role, as did the biologist's crust, which was very useful to me!

I successfully entered the magistracy, there is much less workload in terms of study, and therefore it was already possible to look for a job. Before that, I had various part-time jobs, mainly maintaining the same aquariums and terrariums, worked for a year as an assistant in a veterinary clinic on night duty, and even in the sale of tarantulas at terrarium exhibitions. But paid for it of course crumbs. And somehow I decided to try to work in a petting zoo ... I survived 4 days. But already there I met and became friends with a terrariumist from the relevant department, and she told me that an oceanarium was being built nearby, and it was worth trying to get a job there, well, plus she knew someone from there. So I contacted the head of the biological service of the future Crocus City Oceanarium, where a laboratory biologist and aquarist were required, passed the probationary period and actually started working! Then it seemed like a dream job, and even now I remember those times with warmth, few of my classmates went to work according to their profile, but I was really lucky. But in fairness, it’s worth saying that at the same time I myself was looking for something like this and now I found it! Then the oceanarium had not yet been built, and the animals were not overexposure, a temporary place where they are quarantined and served, and I started working there. Well, I started straight from the bottom in this matter, that is, at first I simply removed the cages from terrestrial animals, then I cut food, like fish and squid (in the aquarium, fish eat thawed fish, this is normal), then I began to serve freshwater aquariums, then marine and so came to work with sharks already there, because he knew about them more than anyone, loved and was not afraid, well, he just frankly showed that he would like to work with them!

The oceanarium was completed and animals were transported there, just when I was finishing my master's degree, I wrote my diploma there not on fish, but on bats. It so happened because everything about fish was again tied to commercial species and everything related to the aquaculture of such fish, which was absolutely not interesting to me. But it was not easy with bats either. Not only because in practice it was necessary to stay awake at night, to catch mice and ring them like birds, but also because it required a lot of work on the analysis of foreign data, articles, translations of articles, working with statistics in EXCEL, in other words, just actively sitting on computer monitor, reporting to the supervisor and interpretation of echolocation signals in a special program. It may sound great, but in reality it's like working in an office, and for me it has always been a personal branch of hell, if not worse! At work in the aquarium it was much more interesting, new fish constantly come, you learn and study information about them, I also liked the activity in working with the aquarium, although this is a dirty job to put it mildly, but I liked working directly with animals and especially with marine and aquatic ones more than to be a scientific data analyzer and correlation bookkeeper and chart editor with graphs. When I graduated from the master's program (with honors, by the way), they called me to go on to master the granite of science further, to graduate school. But I refused. There were several reasons for this. Firstly, when I finished my defense and received my diploma, I hoped that maybe now I could somehow deal with sharks in terms of science. But no, I was directly told that first it’s worth spending another 5-7 years, doing something else, more mundane and important for specific people, countries, companies, getting degrees and recognition, and then you can already try to deal with sharks. Although I already had them at work, why should I spend a few more years for the sake of status in the eyes of people who have never seen these creatures and do not want to?!

Secondly, in the oceanarium they paid normally, in science in this regard, everything is extremely bad. To receive the same salary as the one I received at the aquarium, one would have to have a title of at least a candidate of biological sciences, give lectures, conduct one’s work, speak at conferences (including in other cities, where they usually go at their own expense), go to practice, help students, etc. With each additional load, a small increase in the end.

And thirdly, I never wanted to be a scientist in the sense that a typical academician sits in an office/laboratory, sometimes goes on practice once a year and then talks the rest of the time at closed conferences for gray-haired veterans of data statistics science. No, it's not mine! It was much more interesting for me to work directly with animals, I always wanted to get practical work experience with them more than to delve into theory only! Well, in general, it’s easy to talk about them and learn new things if you have a head on your shoulders and are able to search for and analyze sources of information. Fortunately, I learned this very well at the academy, because in addition to work, I could easily search and study relevant research and results, just knowledge about my favorite sharks and rays.

Well, he went headlong into work in the oceanarium. There I realized that I was much more interested in such a direction as scientific and educational lectures for ordinary people, about the creatures with which I work, which I also began to actively engage in. He did this outside of work, for a couple of diving clubs and communities of animal lovers. Basically, I tell basic knowledge about sharks and rays, unusual and interesting facts about them, of course, I accompany photos and videos of various processes. The key reason why I do it is because I like it! Well, because I love these animals, and they are much more of themselves than the floating teeth and jaws that the media and horror films draw them with. Actually, the image itself, which was drawn by the very film, because of which I fell in love with sharks, I am trying to destroy. I want to show people that these are not cannibal monsters, but just animals. Of course, potentially dangerous, but not killer machines, as they are always painted everywhere. With the same success, you can safely attach such a label to a bear or a tiger, despite the fact that they kill more people in a year than any sharks. In this regard, it seems to me personally that I will bring more benefit to sharks and the ocean than reports on the surplus value of a new portion of sturgeons or at a conference for professors who themselves sometimes believe in these very myths.

I worked at the Crocus City Oceanarium for five years! It happened in every way there, both fun and difficult, you can write a separate article about work there, but this experience also turned out to be necessary, important and useful. But then I didn’t dive with sharks, I didn’t see the ocean at all! Many will be surprised, but it is very difficult for a biologist to get there, because our work is not the most profitable, and various kinds of expeditions and grants are more aimed at our internal rivers and reservoirs, if you are lucky - the seas, and then mainly in the north, say, many Moscow State University students working with marine fauna go to the White and Barents Seas. And even then, most of their works are devoted to local invertebrates, whose diversity in the sea is impressive! About the tropics, you can not even dream of, in this regard, unfortunately. But it was in the aquarium that I understood where to go next in order to get closer to my dream! One day I came across a magazine in our aquarium about diving, which featured our aquarium, which will soon be diving in the main marine aquarium. This service was implemented there by a very experienced diving instructor and director of his club - Dmitry Orlov. And the same magazine had an article about dives of the same diving club and its director in Guadelupe to great white sharks. Then I also participated as a viewer in his webinar dedicated to sharks, and there I filled up with questions in every possible way, how to get into a place full of sharks and learn how to dive with them and work professionally. The answer was quite obvious - learn to dive and ride in places where sharks live and get to learn from a professional there! Well, here I have already begun to slowly but surely master diving! Well, besides him, exactly the same thing was later told to me by a real legend in the world of diving with sharks - Cristina Zenato, a diving instructor from the Bahamas, who has been taking hooks out of shark jaws for over 28 years and teaching others to do it. In general, it was clear that it was necessary to plunge into diving headlong, at least for the sake of a useful skill and the opportunity to be directly with these creatures, as well as for the sake of useful acquaintances in this area. So I went into this craft.

First OWD, then AOWD, everything is as it should be. But I dived only at work a couple of times, and even then consider it a tourist at the surrender of open water in a quarry. Of course, this was not enough!

After 5 years of work in the Crocus City Aquarium, I got the opportunity to get into a more status and professionally developed place - Moskvarium, in the department of warm-water marine fish, which I immediately took advantage of! There I got a new experience of working with new fish, including sharks. Just breeding 2 species of cat sharks was worth it! In addition, there I already went through diving training, and received a 4th category diver certificate to carry out underwater demonstrative feedings and at the same time observe animals. But this is also a small part of the work of an aquarist in such an institution, the rest can also be written separately some other time.

I have already worked at the Moskvarium for two years, mostly with sharks and rays. The latter even simply trained and tamed on submersible feeding. The most interesting thing was of course the feeding of the main marine aquarium, where we had the biggest stingrays, sharks, moray eels, groupers and other fish in general. Of the large sharks, there are two individuals of ordinary sand sharks (Carcharias taurus) and a dozen smaller sharks, blacktip (Carcharhinus melanopterus), whitetip reef (Triaenodon obesus), also 1 decorated wobbegong and zebra sharks (Stegostoma fasciatum), plus even large stingrays, guitar ray and shark ray. In connection with this work, I will immediately answer one of the most frequently asked questions to me - Am I afraid to dive with sharks? NO!

In any case, I am not afraid of sharks at this moment, the depth itself or the supply of air is more frightening. When I'm underwater with these creatures, I experience a whole range of emotions. First of all, it is peace, tranquility, tranquility, delight, curiosity, and somewhere in one of the last lines - adrenaline. I do not see a monster that can devour me, I see a beautiful animal, a top predator, constantly analyzing the situation around. I see the ideal hunter for his habitat and the capture of certain prey, who reacts in a specific way to me, my actions and responds to them. In the end, I see beautiful, elegant fish that have existed and evolved in the ocean for many millions of years, and about which they still learn something new every year. BUT! I am perfectly aware of and know with whom I am dealing, for me they and this action itself are not an attraction to tickle my nerves, as some may think. For me, this is a job, and a favorite and necessary part of it! Yes, of course, there is no small risk of injury or even death. But any person who has worked with animals will tell you that there is and always will be a risk of injury from them, no matter what creature he works with! These are not machines or offices that are programmed or where everything is always 100% safe and controlled by a person. And no, sharks didn’t try to bite me, if you know how to work with them and behave, then it’s safer with them under water than driving a car on the way to the aquarium (no kidding, sometimes it was much worse on the way).

In general, the experience was more than good. But something didn't give me peace. I have never seen or been in the ocean, have not seen sharks and rays there! I was repeatedly told by guests in aquariums and several of my acquaintances divers how they dived in the ocean and seas and saw certain types of sharks, which I read a lot about, watched, knew, but did not see them. This, I won’t lie, was very depressing! For it seems like an ichthyologist, an expert on sharks, but he had no experience with them in the ocean. That's not the point! I continued to slowly but surely master diving. Of course, I continued to give lectures, both in the aquarium and for diving clubs, and for anyone who wanted to.

Now I read them on the island of Fuvahmulah, Maldives. How did it happen? It turns out that when I was just starting my journey, at a webinar where I actively questioned Dmitry Orlov, diving instructors Petr and Irina Britanov noticed me. They, like me, are fans of sharks. But unlike me, they immediately started diving with them wherever they could. As a result, they have a huge practical experience of safe diving with different types of dives. But their big dream was to dive with tiger sharks, the population of which can be found on the island of Fuvahmulah, where they stopped when they founded a Tigersharkprofi! Well, they, kindly, invited me to work with them as a full-time biologist-lecturer, and a diving guide, that's all I'm doing now.

I remember well how I came here and could hardly believe that it was true! And yes, it still feels that way sometimes. As I left the airport, and there was an ocean, not a sea, just an ocean! Huge, blue, to the horizon, the smell of sea salt, the sound of waves, many small huge tankers in the distance like matchboxes, in other words, it was not the Black Sea even once, the difference was total. Not to mention climate change, just what I love, warm, humid, but not stuffy! First stop was Dhaangethi Island, home of theTigersharkprofi branch, where I did a checkdive and dived into the ocean for the first time and not into an aquarium, finally!

My first dives were on Dangetti Island, among reef manta rays, with a wingspan of 3-4 m. These creatures will not leave anyone indifferent, and even more so a biologist who dreamed of working in the ocean. Then there were dives with gray reef sharks, these were the first sharks that I saw in the ocean, as I dreamed. A couple of pieces swam in a small group, at a decent distance from us. But even so, I was delighted, because these are sharks! Wild, natural, and they are here in the open ocean, just great! Beautiful, calm, but attentive and cautious hunters. Yes, and gray reef, one of the smartest fish in the world. In addition to them, there were just a variety of corals, groupers, many fish already familiar to me, but in the open ocean, and besides, there were those whom I had never seen even in the aquarium, like whale sharks. True, there was already snorkeling here, not diving, but even so I was incredibly happy to look at these big and kind giants, which are becoming increasingly rare around the world. Why this happens, I just tell in my lectures for guests.

Well, then there were shark dives on the island of Fuvahmulah, where I am now. The first local checkdave was at Farikeit site, near Thundi beach, in the company of thresher sharks. Oooh, these graceful gentle creatures never get bored. It is a pleasure to watch their smooth, kind of timid, but at the same time precise movements, with a minimum of effort to move in the water, this is the pure underwater aesthetics of nature itself!

Well, for dessert they were...tiger sharks, the visiting card of the island and the diving club! When I sank for the first time under the water, one shark was already right under us. It is still difficult to put together all the words that can at least slightly convey my feelings and emotions from this meeting. At first, I did not immediately believe that I was seeing her live. Those famous stripes, body shape, head, eyes. I have seen them so many times in photos, videos, and now live, and it is so strange, so new, unusual. That she is the famous tiger, right there under me, and not on the screen. Doesn't fit in my head!

Then we swam to the place where the tuna heads were dropped for sharks, Peter and the safety guides at this time look around and provide safety. And then there were a lot of them! I don't remember exactly how many, I think about ten. And it was better than anything I expected and what I was going for. No titles in biologists, conferences and articles can be compared with when you see these amazing animals in the ocean around you, not to mention the feeling of satisfaction, relief and joy when you have achieved a dream and now it is being fulfilled and happening here and now. Diving with sharks is not an adrenaline rush, as some people who have seen only news reports and fictional horror films often believe. No! Diving with tiger sharks is an endless feeling of peace, tranquility, a little weightlessness, both physical and emotional. Being among the sharks is not horror, fear, nerves, adrenaline and creepy music by John Williams. This is being in a new place, watching amazing hunters who themselves are constantly watching, analyzing and studying the environment around, this is the knowledge of nature that is around us and its processes, creatures. Well, I felt in my place, where I want to be, and I want to see such a “view from the office” every day! And most importantly, it's much cooler and better than any shark fishing, eating their fins, soup with them or other products from them.

This is such a long way I went, until I fulfilled my dream and started diving with sharks and working directly with them. Further, I plan only to develop my skills and experience, create new lectures, make information with you dear readers and engage in safe diving to sharks for people far from biology, so that they see in them what these creatures really are - beautiful, amazing animals, deserving respect, protection and admiration no less than other creatures!