Cristina Zenato's remarkable ability with sharks allows for a hands-on approach toward helping them

Cristina Zenato's remarkable ability with sharks allows for a hands-on approach toward helping them

Outdoors

Cristina Zenato's remarkable ability with sharks allows for a hands-on approach toward helping them

Cristina Zenato, who has been diving off the Bahamas for 24 years, appears to enjoy a special bond with the region’s Caribbean reef sharks. The renowned course director refers to them as “my babies,” and if they’re in distress she tries to help.

Cristina Zenato removes hook from Scrunchy, a male reef shark. Photo: ©Jen Kera

Earlier this month, on the same day, sharks nicknamed “Scrunchy” and “Grandma” appeared at Zenato’s dive site with fishing hooks in their mouths.

Scrunchy, lured close with a piece of fish, turned itself upside down briefly while allowing Zenato to extract the hook.  Grandma, just as remarkably, remained relatively calm until the diver’s work was complete.

This has become a side duty for a top-level diver who, over the last 15 years, has removed 250 hooks from the mouths of sharks, without receiving a single bite.

“I’ve received some injuries on my fingers from twisting and turning of the animals trying to become free as I tug on the hook,” Zenato told USA Today. “Not to mention the hooks themselves sometimes piercing my skin.”

Clearly, turning sharks into oral surgery patients, in waters teeming with other sharks, is NOT something ordinary divers should try. Zenato recognizes these sharks, knows their quirks, and can sense their distress.

Cristina Zenato helps Grandma the reef shark become hook-free. Photo: ©Jen Kera

“I know each and every one of them physically but also temper wise, who is a fast feeder, who is calm feeder, who likes to be touched, who doesn’t,” she says.

Sadly, many of the sharks are repeat customers, with summer being the high season for becoming hooked by anglers.

Zenato, who dives while wearing a protective suit, will only try to remove a hook if she believes it can be safely accomplished. She works almost exclusively with Caribbean reef sharks, explaining that she does not have enough experience with larger tiger sharks and lemon sharks to probe their mouths with her hands.

Cristina Zenato shows a handful of the 250 hooks she has removed from the mouths of sharks. Photo: Cristina Zenato/Facebook

“Some of my sharks can go into a relaxed state and sink slowly into my lap which allows me to see better, but some don’t do that and the process is to figure it out on the fly, as they swim by,” Zenato explains.

“Some hooks remain lodged with the barb inside the thick skin and that takes a lot of attempts. The sharks seem to know I am trying to remove the hook but like any other animal they don’t understand pain and they tend to swim away as soon as I start to work with the hook. Then they might come back in a tight circle over and over, giving me more tries.”

Zenato, who has been featured by the BBC, National Geographic and other networks, said the sharks seem to appreciate the hook removal and likes to share the story of “Foggy Eye,” who at one point had been famously skittish and elusive.

“She was a shark that had been seen on the dive regularly for a couple of years but never liked to be touched,” Zenato says. “One day she showed up with a small hook, which I removed as she swam by. Two days later she was back with a bigger hook stuck inside her mouth with only a wire sticking out of the front jaw. (See video posted above.)

“After several tours and attempts I had been able to see that the hook was lodged inside her mouth, on the bottom. After 14 minutes of trying to relax her and touching the hook, I finally went in, up to my elbow, removed the hook and proceed to be slapped by her tail as she tried to get away from this mad woman sticking her arm half way down her mouth.

“Since that day she has been the most ‘cuddly’ of the sharks. She started to come up to me and lay in my lap and has never stopped liking being touched.”

–Photos by ©Jen Kera

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