Cristina Zenato is Head of Diving at UNEXSO in Grand Bahama Island, a world renowned shark diver, and member of the Women Divers’ Hall of Fame. Cristina is sharing her considerable knowledge and experience of diving with sharks through a new Shark Savers' blog series. Below is first of the series.
If there is one common question I get from people all over the world, it is about the level of skills necessary to be with sharks, followed by an expression of mixed fear and desire to meet them. Most of the queries come from beginner divers and sometimes even from non-divers, who want to go and see sharks, be in the water with them, and experience, in person, the beauty of their presence.
Their questions are legitimate and important. Given my years of experience diving with sharks, I am pleased when a person, a diver, reflects on his/her capabilities about being in the water with sharks and then asks questions. Indeed, even experienced divers should follow some guidelines to verify if a specific shark experience or shark dive trip is appropriate for their experience level.
There are, indeed, some specific and basic considerations that should be reviewed when deciding when, where, how and with what sharks to interact.
Initially, you may want to start by choosing which species of sharks you would like to see and then research locations, operators, seasons and conditions. Some shark species are best observed from the surface while some are better observed underwater on scuba – and between these two options lays a wide variety of shark encounter ‘methods’. In a world of unregulated shark encounters, dives available to almost anyone vary from the most conservative cage encounters to unsupervised dives that can end in absolute chaos, However, I am leaving this aspect of the discussion to a later date. For now, knowing the challenges of even a well-supervised shark encounter, at the surface or below, will help make for a safe and positive experience for you and the animals.
If the sharks in question are surface observed, you need to research where and how the encounter is managed, always keeping in mind the behavior of the shark and the approach required. Whale sharks are a prime example. Looking at some of the popular and wonderful footage of whale sharks currently available on line, it might look easy and relaxing but being in the water with these large animals requires strong legs for kicking, good stamina and at least intermediate water skills. For most whale shark encounters, you will find yourself in the middle of the ocean swimming with an animal that can move several feet with just one gentle motion of the tail. Additionally, you are also away from the immediate surface security of the support boat, as vessels should keep a large berth around these gentle giants to avoid disturbance of their natural behaviors, often filter feeding at the surface. You might not need to be a scuba diver, but good water and snorkeling skills are a must for you to be able to enjoy the encounter. As with many oean-related activities, your physical fitness will also play a role in the success of the encounter.
Of course, to thoroughly enjoy your trip you need to be comfortable with your snorkel gear. Using a mask and snorkel for the first time on such a trip might prove uncomfortable and compromise your enjoyment; so, if you are new to the gear, practice at home or take a lesson with a professional before your big encounter -- consider swimming and practicing few laps in a pool to improve your overall fitness level.
If instead, the surface encounters are managed through a cage, there may be less need for preparation in terms of swimming skills. Surprisingly, cage encounters can be more favorable to a wider range of the public as less preparation may be involved. However, considering the location of the cage encounter, the boat travel time and the average sea conditions is still important. The best recommendation for such trips, if you are not a “boat person” or have not been out at sea for a long time is to prepare with some sea sickness medications, some protection from the elements (wind breaker, sun block, glasses, hat) and comfortable clothes you do not mind getting wet or salty; and contact the tour operator to inquire if there is any specific, required/recommended gear and if that gear is provided. For example, to enter some cages in South Africa to observe great whites sharks you will need a thick, warm wetsuit due to the ambient water temperatures. Make sure you have or wetsuits are available in your size as an ill-fitting wetsuit provides little to no thermal protection.
A different set of concerns is involved with shark encounters and observations when using scuba equipment. Primarily, training and certification as Open Water diver is mandatory. Though higher levels of certifications may be required to access a dive, I believe more in the quality of diving and experience each person has. Ultimately, make sure you conform to the operator requirements for certification and/or experience. More importantly, you need to be honest with yourself about your skill level. Nobody else can tell you if you are capable of completing the dives or not.
And again, always consider the animals you want to encounter. What kind of sharks are they? How do they live, where do they live? How are the encounters organized? Is it a in a natural gathering location like the famous Sardine Run, or a chum dive, baited dive, feed dive, or a free encounter dive? Be sure you know what each of these means and what to expect from both the animals and the tour operator. Also, be sure to know what the rules and regulations of the operator are with regard to the dives and encounters? Are you comfortable with the descriptions of the dive procedures? Will there be a guide? A handler/feeder? Do you feel it’s the right dive and encounter for your skills level?
You begin by understanding the animals you want to encounter, how they act and what their nature dictates, and understand how the operator works in relation to the characteristic of the animals. Screen operators’ dive and animal encounter procedures in conjuction with your own skills to see if they are compatable with your comfort level. Ask still more questions:
Is it a deep dive, in the 100ft plus range? Have you ever dived that deep? Is it a drift dive in strong currents? Can you keep up with the guide and group in those conditions? Is it cold? Bad visibility? How familiar are you with all these conditions? If you realize that a single new element is present and prepare for it, your chances of having a successful dive are higher. If you realize that you are adding several new factors in one experience along with the new shark encounter, you might want to spend more time preparing and perhaps even gain more dive experience before attempting the dive or trip.
Visualizing the dive and conditions can be a great help. We have heard the word visualize before, but often we don’t know how to really apply it.
Here is a little trick I use with my divers and students and ultimately myself. Start by imagining yourself donning your wetsuit and think where you are. Is it going to be hot and you are going to don a thick suit? Is it going to be rough on the surface? Sit and think how you need to pull your wetsuit up, imagine the heat coming over your body, imagine breathing and accepting the heat, imagine the sweat, the rocking of the boat, feel it and prepare for it. Do that for every single piece of gear -- mask, regulator, BCD, weights; imagine, visualize, and learn to accept it. The moment it all actually happens, body and mind are ready and your reaction is tranquil.
Think of your breathing, learn to control it and relax it.
Vizualize working your way down the water column, imagine equalizing, how you need to do it effectively, and where to keep your attention. Is there a guide, a descent line, is it blue water diving or is there a bottom and gathering point? As you work through the scenario you can begin to address your concerns even prior to your arrival and discuss them with the person in charge.
If you are planning on taking camera gear, be sure you are familiar with its use and control. While swimming, scuba diving, and interacting with any sharks for the first time is not the place to learn how to operate the 20+ buttons on your new housing and strobes. For that matter, if you are planning on taking any new gear, don’t. There is a difference between using basic rental gear, similar to any open water gear you’ve used before and becoming reacquainted with it or adding something totally new and different, like a computer or camera that requires your attention when you should be payting attention to a new environment and new animals. This same guideline applies to a new wetsuit. If you decide to purchase a new wetsuit for the trip and it’s thick, 5mm or more, take into consideration the following: have you ever used a thick suit before, how much weight will you need with this new, more bouyant suit? Can you descend as and when required by the operator? Due to the behaviors of some sharks, some dive procedures require that you enter the water and descend immediately leaving no time for a buoyancy check or any other actions on the surface. If you are not sure, check your buoyancy prior to the trip.
Once you have mastered your own diving and gear, the second step to a successful encounter is: listen to the dive briefing, carefully. Try to collect a series of points and rules. Despite your excitement, try to stay focused and absorb the instructions of the operator. Ask questions if you need but don’t question the rules and procedures. If you are in the position – based on experience – to question why you are asked to behave or not in a certain way and feel that the rules are not pertinent to you, then abort the dive and seek out a different operator that works better for your needs. If you enter the water behaving against the instructions of the dive leader or operator, it is not only disrespectful, but could be dangerous, potentially jeopardizing your safety and that of others sharing your trip, the operator and the sharks.
When thinking of embarking on a shark trip, think ahead of time about the environment, gear, conditions, and yourself. Honestly assess your capabilities, address your concerns or fears; make a checklist and decide what you have under control and what requires your attention. Call the operator, ask questions and arrive, on site or on the boat, prepared. Following these guidelines will allow you to concentrate on your interactions with the animals and ultimately help guarantee a wonderful experience.
Cristina was born in Italy and grew up in the middle of the rain forest of the African Congo until the age of 15. She started diving in 1994 during a vacation to Grand Bahama, fell in love with both diving and the island and decided to make the Bahamas her home, and diving her life.
Fluent in five languages, Cristina has become the Diving Operations Manager for UNEXSO. Still with the original passion for diving of when she started, she actively teaches and guides divers daily.
Passionate about sharks since childhood, Cristina found her place under the mentorship of legendary Ben Rose, from whom she learned the art of shark feeding and tonic immobility. In 1996 she became the shark feeder trainer at UNEXSO. She created a course for a shark-friendly experience and has educated divers about the beauty of these creatures and the need to conserve them and their environment. Through the ‘shark feeder course’ she has created a new series of passionate shark ambassadors who share their gained experience and knowledge about sharks to many more divers.
She has created a shark dive logbook, to track sharks’ behavior and presence in relation to the variable factors of the underwater world and the surface. She has collected and conserves a photo ID library of the sharks appearing on the dives around the island. Cristina’s unique gift is to be able to put sharks into a state of hypnosis. Sharks respond comfortably to her touch and approach. Cristina uses this technique to remove hooks, parasites and to educate people by viewing sharks differently. Her non-profit work in shark conservation is countless and she has appeared in National Geographic, BBC Science, Pianeta Mare, Ushuaia and diving magazines around the world in more then 20 different languages.
Parallel with her passion for sharks is her love for cave diving. Certified as a cave diver in 1996 in Florida, in 2001 after hundreds of cave dives, she became a cave diving instructor. Cristina has dived all the available and lined caves on Grand Bahama, and has accumulated experience in the caves of Florida, Bahamas and Mexico. Her passion for cave diving has brought her close to another environmental issue on these fragile islands – the conservation of caves and water flow. As a cave instructor, Cristina volunteers to map two of the major cave systems on Grand Bahama. The two-years project and the final survey will be used by the Bahamas National Trust to extend the protection to the land above the entire aquatic cave system. Together with the survey project, she works on creating the associated marine protected area.
Cristina believes in the power of education and knowledge, especially of the younger generations. She believes:
“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less."
~ Marie Curie