There are few Shark Angels that are better known that Cristina Zenato. And there are definitely none that spend more time in the water with sharks - or fight harder for their protection. Cristina works tirelessly to shift perspectives and show people a new side of sharks. And people, like sharks, are entranced by what she can do with sharks; her recent YouTube video has almost 1.9 million hits! Read about how she got started, puts sharks into a trance-like state, and even her views on the sometimes controversial shark feeding. We think you'll adore her as much as we do - even more than her family of Carribean Reef sharks does.
Born in Italy, but a very active resident of the Bahamas, Cristina Zenato is the head of diving for the Underwater Explorers Society, more commonly known as UNEXSO. She is well known for her abilities to interact with sharks—Caribbean Reef sharks, in particular. A popular online video shot by recent interview subject Joe Romeiro shows one of Cristina's special skills—she's able to put sharks in a state of tonic immobility, which she uses not only to remove hooks or parasites from them, but to raise general awareness and interest in the animals. We were lucky enough to chat with Cristina recently about how she came into diving, her experiences with sharks, and some recent victories for shark conservation in the Bahamas.
Interview by Tim Gideon
SHARK ANGELS: Let's start with your childhood in Italy, where you learned to free dive.
CRISTINA ZENATO: I grew up with an ocean family, so I always had fins, snorkel, mask, I always went free-diving with my dad, but I never learned to scuba dive until I went to the Bahamas on vacation. Once there, I realized diving was what I wanted to do for at least a year, so I quit everything I had back in Italy: home, boyfriend, car, job—a very good job—and I moved to the Bahamas to work there at a different job and scuba dive for a whole year. I encountered sharks on my first certification dive in the Bahamas. I always had a fascination with sharks, so it was very easy to fall in love with them.
SA: So, how did you go from training dives in the Bahamas to your current role with UNEXSO?
CZ: After I finished my courses in the Bahamas to become a dive master, I did my instructor courses in Ft. Lauderdale. I got NAUI certification, then PADI, and I worked in the hotel business to pay for my diving. I worked 4pm to 11pm, so in the morning I would rollerblade five miles to UNEXSO, where I did my dives, rollerblade back, nap, shower, and go to work. And if I ever had the day off, they'd know, because I'd stay all day and do four dives.
SA: That must have been exhausting!
CZ: Yeah, the first year was intense. Within eight months, I think I collected three or four hundred dives.
SA: Wow. So what is it you do for UNEXSO currently?
CZ: I am the diving supervisor—I basically run the entire dive operation and on top of that, I am a full technical instructor, so I run the entire cave-diving program, teaching, and the shark-feeding program.
SA: You're rather well known for your ability to interact with sharks, particularly you're quite good at petting them and putting them into an almost hypnotic state called "tonic immobility," which involves touching the electricity-detecting pores near the snout (called Ampullae de Lorenzini). How on Earth did you learn to do this?
CZ: I learned through my UNEXSO mentor, which was Ben Rose. He taught me how to feed sharks, and from there he taught me more. He always had a good knack for it, so he taught me. Let's say I was very fortunate, because sharks were there, and sharks were welcome and fed, and they were part of my daily routine, so it was very easy to invest more of my time and daily routine to sharks.
SA: Can you walk us through the process of learning how to do that—it graduated slowly from touching sharks and feeding them?
CZ: Yeah, it all goes hand-in-hand. Nowadays, when an instructor of mine wants to become a feeder, the first step is to do the shark safety diver program. You go on shark dives, but you watch the other divers, the feeder, the videographer, how the sharks interact. You have to do this for a minimum of six months. So you're basically in the water, daily, just watching sharks, listening to some briefings. The training is then done privately—no guests. The first step is learning to feed them. Sharks would never come close enough to a human wearing Scuba gearing if you didn't have food.
SA: Is hand-feeding dangerous?
CZ: It's kind of funny—and a little bit upsetting—how people claim that by feeding sharks, you're teaching them to bite people. Sharks never approach people on Scuba. When they see people on Scuba, they may slowly approach, because you can tell they are thinking, based on memory: "Oh, maybe I'm gonna get fed." But their senses are so strong, they stop and think, "Oh, no you don't have any food, because I cannot taste it, smell it, sense it." It's pretty amazing—sharks are probably the number one feared animal on the planet, but they are probably one of the safest feared animals to feed on the planet, compared to baboons or Komodo dragons, or bears. Because bears, they go beyond their senses, they explore and seek out food, but when a shark's senses tell it that there's no food, it stops looking. So, my belief is you have to learn to feed sharks if you want to be this close to them.
SA: And you don't believe that hand feeding is slowly some how changing shark behavior to get closer to other people who might want to harm them?
CZ: Well, like fishermen, you mean? That will be done anyway. Fishermen chum the water regardless, and hand-feeding won't change that. Sharks have learned to follow chum and to follow boats since the days we put the first paddle into the ocean. Sharks knew to show up for a boat way before diving was even discovered or shark-feeding was developed. But I do get nervous when I see that people think they can just feed any type of shark using the same technique. A Caribbean Reef shark's tooth is about the size of my ring finger nail, and the Bull sharks of Fiji, their teeth are maybe the size of my big toenail, and there are other sharks with teeth the size of my entire big toe—you can't feed these sharks the same way. I see some people acting like cowboys throwing themselves into shark-feeding, and so that is a possible negative side of shark-feeding—but not because of the sharks, because of the people who do not take the time to go in the water, learn about the shark, and work with them and adapt to each different type of shark.
SA: So, you feel that irresponsible feeding can be an issue, but not feeding itself?
CZ: Yes, for instance, when I feed, I don't just throw on my chain mail suit, jump in the water, and immediately start feeding sharks. I get in the water and watch first, then starting thinking, "Should I introduce food? Is this a shark I really want to hand feed?" And each shark I work differently with.
SA: We featured footage our friend, Joe Romeiro, took of you interacting with a Carribean Reef Shark and using the petting technique to seemingly hypnotize it. Does this work with all types of sharks?
CZ: Well, it definitely works with Caribbean Reef sharks. It takes time—my sharks, the sharks I am in the water with respond in a quicker way because of the environment and seeing them on a regular basis, because of repetition, conditioning, training. But I have worked with Caribbean Reef sharks in other parts of the Bahamas, and it worked with them, as well. I was able, through Joe, to also work on some Blue sharks, and they had a response as well.
SA: Was that off the coast of Rhode Island?
CZ: Yep, so totally different environment, totally different sharks, and I didn't even have a chain suit on. So yes, it works with other sharks, I think it could work with bigger sharks, it just needs to be done carefully and safely. The problem is: If we get hurt, the shark gets blamed. At the end of the day, if I were to ever get hurt working with sharks, I hope that people say: "She had it coming, she had food in her hands, it was a risk." There's a difference between being a feeder and just diving with sharks, which can be done very safely. Once you feed them, you have to take the responsibility if something happens and not blame the animals.
SA: What are the greatest challenges facing sharks in the Bahamas currently, or is this a relatively safe place for sharks?
CZ: It has become a safe place, since July 4th, 2011. We had a law passed that basically prevents any import, export, or trading of any shark carcass all over the Bahamas, including lending dead sharks for sport fishing. Huge victory. But, enforcing the law over the Bahamas—I mean, we are 700 hundred islands, keys, sandbanks, we are the Land of Hiding. So, between passing the law and enforcing it, obviously there will be some challenges.
SA: So, you believe the law will be difficult to enforce?
CZ: I think so. I mean, the United States, with the man-power and boats that they have, they still have trouble controlling their coastline, so think about the Bahamas. We are lucky, though, because Bahamians don't eat sharks, don't hunt sharks. What we have, though, is pressure from the east to harvest the sharks, so unfortunately, it's money pressure. So I think that rather than only focusing on enforcing the law, we need to find a way for Bahamians to detract a value from live sharks rather than dead sharks. And here comes the controversy—people will say: "Oh, you do it for money!" Well yes, I have to do some of this money, because when I go to the supermarket, showing them the video of me with the sharks doesn’t pay the bill—nor does it for Bahamians. So I am very much for making an economical value for live sharks, for the Bahamians, so that the Bahamians will have good reason not to kill them. Many of the island nations like Fiji, the Bahamas, Palau have already embraced this—I'm surprised the bigger nations haven't.
SA: Are the sharks you work with moving out of your waters and into areas where they're not protected and are in danger?
CZ: No, not really. Caribbean Reef Sharks are fairly territorial, some have been tracked over 200 miles, but it's still a fairly safe environment, so the sharks are fairly pampered.
SA: So, what do you think is needed for shark conservation to succeed on a larger scale, beyond the Bahamas?
CZ: Diplomacy and talking to people, education about the issues sharks face and actually talking with people, I think this is how things can get done. We were able to get a popular restaurant on the Island of Grand Bahama to remove sharks from the menu, and this was before the law was passed, and it was because the owner and I had polite conversation and he thought, "Oh, this makes sense." They dropped sharks off the menu and now we are regular customers there. I think that shark and ocean lovers can embrace moderation, manners, diplomacy, and we will obtain more results.
Images by Bill Fisher
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