At 7 years old, Cristina Zenato had her heart set on being an underwater park ranger. “When you’re a kid, you can’t be in the water all the time — people are always telling you to get out,” she says.
As time wore on, life happened and Zenato traded her love of water for her passion for languages, mastering five before entering the hotel business. Then she took a vacation to the island of Grand Bahama, where she became a certified scuba diver.
At the time, the head shark trainer of UNEXSO (a dive facility on the island) noticed her ease with the Caribbean reef sharks, and he encouraged her to work with the animals. Now, at age 43, Zenato is the head shark trainer for that outfit and has been for the past 21 years, introducing 1,800 scuba divers a year to one of nature’s most awe-inspiring animals. We decided to have her introduce us as well.
Let’s start with the basics. What does it take to feed the sharks?
You have to be comfortable underwater, surrounded by 20 Caribbean reef sharks. They bump you, especially when you have all the food. You have to be OK when your mask is pushed away. And you need good buoyancy while wearing 18 pounds of chainmail and walking on the seafloor. Only then can you start to connect with sharks.
And how do you connect with a shark?
It starts with letting go. To put a shark in a catatonic state [aka to sleep], you can’t force the results or the animal. Forget your pride and the sharks come in. They put their heads on my chest, hands and lap. That’s when you really build a connection.
How do you tell them apart?
By size, coloration and marks. Take Grandma. She’s very big, very wide and light gray like an old lady. And she’s very slow.
You have a video on YouTube that’s caused a sensation.
Which one? You’re probably talking the clip with Foggy Eye. She has one blind eye — totally black like the eye of a tiger shark. She didn’t like to be touched. Then one day she appeared. She had a hook, and I removed it. That was a Monday. I was in the water Tuesday and Wednesday. She didn’t show. Then came Thursday.
What happened Thursday?
There she was, with a wire dangling from her mouth. She approaches, and I rub her. I try to wiggle the hook loose. Every time, she’d swim away. Finally, I figure, "I’m going in." I stick my entire arm in her mouth. When she swims away, her tail slaps me. That clip went viral. People don’t understand that it took 30 minutes of working with her before I could ease out the hook. And when her tail hit me, she was only swimming away. Nothing more. These are wild animals.
Foggy Eye has become one of the cuddliest sharks.
Speaking of cuddly sharks, we’ve heard you wish you could pet them while watching TV.
It’s true. Only, I don’t have a TV, so it’d be with a book.
What would people be surprised to learn about sharks?
Sharks are much smarter than people realize. They have a basic level of communication. They give directions to each other. I’ve removed a lot of hooks, and I’ve noticed that sharks I’ve never seen before show up with metal in their mouths. After I remove the hooks, I never see those sharks again. Now, I can’t prove that they’re communicating, like, "Hey, this is where to go to get hooks removed," but it sure seems like that’s the case.
The Discovery Channel and BBC — who’ve aired segments of you with the sharks — would have us believe your job is a glamorous one.
Ha! My day starts with packing a 2-foot-long PVC feeding tube with dead herring. I’m covered in guts and fish blood every day. It’s hot and it’s sticky. My hair is always a bees’ nest. I don’t wear makeup with this job, and I have no nails — the chainmail rubs them off.
Tell us about this phrase of yours: “Shark yourself.”
It means stop and take in the moment. Stretch out your arms and marvel at the fact that you’re standing there with food and these sharks will do nothing unless you offer it. I often pause, close my eyes and let them swim around me.
Would you call this a dream job?
It’s a privilege. And now, nobody ever tells me I have to get out of the water.
To watch clips of Zenato at work or to learn how you can join her for a dive, visit her site.