There are about 500 species of sharks in the Earth’s oceans, ranging from tiny sharks just a few inches long to the enormous plankton-feeding whale shark. About 100 million sharks are killed every year, the majority for the cruel practice of shark-finning: removing the fins from the living shark to feed the appetite for shark’s fin soup which is served as a prestige dish at Chinese weddings and banquets and in up-market Chinese restaurants. The result is that a considerable number of shark species are now endangered, some critically so.
Enter Cristina Zenato, a professional diver whose mission is to educate people about sharks and to try to conserve these majestic creatures. Cristina was born in Italy, brought up in the Congo, and now lives in the Bahamas. She tells of how she arrived in the Bahamas to learn to dive and how diving took over her whole life.
She has been a professional diver now for over 20 years. She lives in Grand Bahama and her passion is diving with Caribbean reef sharks. However, Cristina has a speciality – she fearlessly removes hooks from the mouths of these 2.5-metre denizens of the ocean.
Cristina tells of the first time it happened. How a shark rested on her leg, how she started to pet and stroke it and then noticed a hook embedded in its mouth. On impulse, she thrust her hand into the shark’s mouth and removed the hook. To her amazement not only did the shark seem to understand what she as doing but since then has followed her, nudging her in the water becoming almost a pet.
But what is even more amazing is that soon other sharks began to show up. Also with hooks in their mouths. Scientists have no idea how sharks can communicate with each other to pass on the message that here is someone who will remove the hooks in their mouths. More incredible is that they allow her to do so.
Cristina has dived all over the world and has worked with 12 species of shark but still, it is off Grand Bahama that the sharks come. The hooks have become embedded as they escape from fishermen, sometimes by eating fish which have also been hooked. Cristina has kept a collection of all the hooks she has removed over the last 24 years. The total: over 300.
Recently she appeared on Chinese TV and afterwards was amazed by the response she received on social media. She says that most of here respondents said they had no idea of the damage that sharks’ fin soup was causing to the world’s shark population.
So, as she tries to educate people about her world of sharks she continues to remove the hooks from the mouths of her sharks. In the world of diving, she is known as ‘The Shark Whisperer’. A passionate cave diver who has explored some of the world’s remotest underwater cave systems, she is a member of the Explorers Club and is in the Women Divers Hall of Fame.
Still, it is for her work as the Shark Whisperer that Cristina is justly famous.