Yalla, let’s meet Cristina, who’s been diving with sharks for the last twenty-two years
Diving with sharks? What a dream for many people! And I am one of them. I have been preparing for such an experience since I took the PADI Shark Dive Certification at the Dubai Aquarium, inside the Dubai Mall. Since then, I have been trying the same feat in Melbourne and various other places around the globe. But it was not until just a few months ago that I actually had my first shark encounter in open waters: a reef in Khorfakkan.
The encounter was brief as the shark was a few meters away from me only for a handful of seconds, but it definitely ignited my passion for having more of these experiences in open water.
Then, I found out about Cristina Zenato watching one of the many documentaries I found on TV or YouTube. Cristina has twenty-two years of experience diving with sharks and is renowned by scientists and filmmakers who widely tap into her profound knowledge of sharks’ behavior and protection. She is instrumental for the safety of crews working in the water with sharks and also helps filmmakers making the most of the sharks’ presence for very successful shootings. She is based in the Bahamas but has travelled the world to gain knowledge of at least 12 types of shark families. She definitely sparked my interest!
And then, a remarkable coincidence… Cinzia, a friend that, like me, is part of the heli rescue divers organization, Bergamo Scuba Angels, contacted me to let me know she was about to depart for the Bahamas and had enrolled in a 3-day course with Cristina herself.
This is not the first time that I am prone to such coincidences. Some time ago, after watching a documentary by Joel Lambert on the great white shark, I actually contacted him just to find out that he was due to stopover in Dubai the day after on his way to Africa. Needless to say, I did not miss the opportunity to interview him!
I also didn’t want to miss an opportunity to meet Cristina, who is now such an authority in the field, but, unfortunately, despite my efforts, I was unable to rearrange my busy agenda to accommodate this trip. So, I had to limit myself to receiving daily news from Cinzia as she described her wonderful experience, sent me beautiful pictures and, above all, told me all about the esteem and gratitude she felt for Cristina.
She would say phrases like It was an unforgettable dive… she helped me to wear the steel sharksuit, and then down… everything is so different over there… I have no words to describe what I experienced today…
But also fun comments like: Today I learned a new verb I did not know about: “To SHARK”
For Cinzia it was an unforgettable dive but also a very educational experience thanks to Cristina who debunked many false myths on sharks and helped her meet and interact with them during underwater walks. I truly cannot wait to meet Cristina and her sharks in person!
I am already looking forward to the experience as well as gaining all the knowledge that Cristina gives during her course. In her on-on-one sessions, in fact, she not only helps divers experience the feeling of being surrounded by Caribbean Reef Sharks, but she also starts the first day with lessons on shark biology, behavior, and reaction to food, to finish then with tips on shark handling and conservation.
In the first dive, the “student” observes Cristina as she interacts with the shark and demonstrates all that is explained in the morning. At this point, it is possible to involve certified friends and family that can be booked as additional divers in this observation phase. The day starts around 8:30am and ends at 4:30pm.
In the next two days, two training dives are completed, and the participant can actually feed, pet and handle sharks. Obviously at this point, no observers are allowed, but the entire experience is filmed by a videographer who will then deliver a DVD of the experience to share with family and friends. The days end around 2:00 pm. It is important to note that these courses are not for those who would like to become professional shark feeder or that want to start their own shark diving business. It is also a course that is very specific to the location and the type of shark found there.
As I am also passionate about diving gear, I also can’t wait to try on a shark suit in my future Bahamas adventure. A shark suit is a very special gear used for scuba diving with sharks that is designed to protect against bites and to discourage sharks, who normally prefer softer preys, from attacking. There are many types of suits that have been experimented with, including gear covered with metal spikes or rigid plastic plates, but the most used type, currently, involves the use of chainmail.
What sounds like a very medieval gear, has actually reached such an advanced technological state that it lends safety to the many divers (scientists, filmmaking crews, aquarium personnel…) that spend many hours daily in contact with these great marine creatures. Newest suits allow for more mobility and weigh less, for a more pleasant experience, but they still require dozens of manual labor and very hi-tech machines in order to cut the suit and weld the chain mail that form it.
Cristina has been diving with sharks for the last twenty-two years. Her field knowledge about sharks has been utilized by scientists, filmmakers and people interested in learning about sharks, the world they live in and how to protect them.
Her day to day work is with the Caribbean Reef Sharks in the Bahamas, but she has traveled the world, worked with and experienced twelve different species of sharks.
As a professional shark diver Cristina can perform as a safety diver for talents and in water crew during video and image productions. Her knowledge of shark behavior will allow your production to obtain the best results in the sharks’ presence and reduce risk factors, delivering consistency and highly increasing your chances of success. ■
A pioneer in the shark-handling course, Cristina offers a three-day, one on one training course for those divers interested in experiencing how it feels to feed, pet and be surrounded by Caribbean Reef Sharks.
DAY 1: Cristina will start her course on the first day with a morning session about shark biology, behavior, and reaction to food; together you will discuss shark handling and procedures and learn about sharks’ conservation. Following the morning classes, you will complete an observation dive during which you will watch Cristina interact with the sharks and apply the information discussed during the morning. This dive is open to certified friends and family as it is an observation dive. Ask Cristina how to book the additional divers. Day duration 8:30am through 4:30pm.
DAY 2 AND 3: You will complete two training dives per day while wearing the chainmail suit under the direct supervision of Cristina. The basics of feeding, handling and petting will be presented during the dives. A videographer will collect all the special moments and deliver a final DVD product of your experience. No observers are allowed during the training dives for safety reasons. Day duration 8:30am-2:00pm.
NOTE: This course is shark and location specific. It is built as a personal experience and does not constitute a training course for people interested in becoming a professional shark feeder and in creating a shark dive for guests.
Words by: Nico de Corato & Cinzia Verzeri
Photos by: Cinzia Verzeri & Cristina Zenato