Studying stress while diving with Sharks

Posted by Scuba Herald at 6:13 am 0 Comment Print

The professor who investigates the psychobiology of stress is getting unwanted attention from the hungry leopard shark. The professor hovers under 20 feet of water. She clutches a container of delightfully stinky goodies — chopped shrimp, squid, krill — and is clearly the most popular gal in the 142,000-gallon tank.

This food is meant for the yellowtail and the sea bass — the Aquarium of the Pacific feeds sharks via poles from dry land, not wanting them to associate divers with food for obvious reasons — but this particular leopard shark is having none of it.

It circles the professor in a ravenous reverie. Prods her with its nose. Pushes her with its body. Then, to her great surprise, it slithers insistently beneath the belt of her dive vest which holds her oxygen tank hoping a face-to-face appeal will change her mind. Professor and fish are strapped together in a strange embrace, wriggling in the chilly waters of the Blue Cavern exhibit as a cloud of fish engulfs them.

“They really beat me up today!” Ilona Federenko says later, peeling off her dripping dive hood. “I’ve never had that happen before.”

Ah! Diving with sharks. What better way to relax?

The link between stress and bad health is conventional wisdom. But Federenko, an assistant professor in UC Irvine’s psychology and social behavior department, wants to understand the nature of that link — exactly how stress leads to what scientists call “negative health outcomes” and what role genes play in our ability to weather crises.

Federenko was born in Schwelm, a small town in western Germany that boasts it’s home to the world’s oldest piano manufacturer. Her father was a train conductor. The family traveled often. Federenko loved foreign languages and was curious about what made people tick.

She studied at the University of Trier and gravitated to psychology. Researchers there were probing stress; curious Federenko was keen to do some research. Soon she developed expertise in the fine art of inducing anxiety in the name of science.

It was about this time that she vacationed in Australia, home to the Great Barrier Reef. In those gorgeous, crystalline waters were whales, dolphins, porpoises, sea turtles and more than 1,500 fish species. Federenko, however, was a landlubber. That alluring, mysterious, underwater world was beyond her reach.

That, she decided, would change.

Drawn to the deep

Federenko returned to Germany and began scuba certification classes — in cold, dark lakes where stones and cans far outnumbered fish. It was bizarre, this weightless, silent, nearly sightless world. It was disorienting when you considered not only what was in front of and behind you, but also what was above and below you. To think in three dimensions.

When she returned to the Great Barrier Reef, the effort paid off. Beneath the waves she discovered an entirely different universe, a treasure chest of jewel-toned fish and lacy coral and spears of sunlight slicing through an awesome blue — a universe that was stunning, breathtaking, overwhelming, serene.

Once, off the Monterey coast, a playful seal turned the tables and made her the object of curiosity. It followed her everywhere, like a wide-eyed, inquisitive, underwater cat.

After diving, she felt drained. Happy. It was a great stress reliever.

Federenko earned her doctorate in psychobiology in 2003 and came to America to do postdoctoral work on stress and pregnancy at UCI Medical Center. When a position opened in UCI’s department of psychology and social behavior, she became an assistant professor.

Federenko’s move west was, well, stressful. She didn’t know anyone in Orange County. She figured she would volunteer to help meet people, which led to the Aquarium of the Pacific. There, fish had to be fed by hand — slower ones would never eat otherwise. Animals had to be observed, so injured fish could get to the vet. Artificial coral had to be scrubbed clean — with toothbrushes, no less. The aquarium has a cadre of 160 rescue-certified volunteer divers, and dives occur every day of the week. Federenko joined them.

That was three years ago. But most Saturdays, Federenko can still be found submerged in a tank at the aquarium. She and her teammates do five dives each afternoon, feeding, observing, scrubbing.

Some might find diving with sharks stressful. Or consider it an opportunity for more research. Not Federenko. This is pure, unadulterated fun. There are no lecture halls of demanding undergraduates here. No studies to design, no permissions to obtain, no numbers to interpret. It’s all about this fistful of food and getting it into that fish’s gob.

It’s about freeing the mind from everyday worries. A key, clearly, to stress management and better health.

Federenko does not consider herself a mellow person. In addition to diving, she seeks serenity through yoga, long walks on the beach and the wisdom of her two cats. “They just lie down in the sun,” she says. “There’s a lot you can learn from them.”


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