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May 1, 2013

Risky Business


Photo Credit: TrujilloPaumier

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CRISTINA ZENATO, 41: The Shark Handler
Freeport, Bahamas

Time on the job: 17 years

Why she loves it: "Sharks aren't mean"

Work requirement: Obsessive preparation and control

"Swimming with sharks was a childhood dream, and I finally did it when I went to the Bahamas on vacation in 1994. I remember those early dives as being full of wonder—there were sharks all around me. I was counting them, breathing with them, almost like a member of their school. I was never afraid, just fascinated. I loved it so much I decided to stay, and by 1995, I was training to be a diving instructor and a shark diver. A year later, I was feeding sharks and have been ever since.

As diver operation manager at the Underwater Explorers Society, I oversee a crew of 12 people and six boats. Certified tourist divers come from all over the world to watch me feed and handle the animals. We go about 45 feet below the surface, and sharks swim around us. No one is in a cage. We usually see Caribbean reef sharks, which grow to about 8 feet.

When I tell people what I do for a living, they almost always mention Jaws. But it's just a movie. Sharks aren't as dangerous as people think, and 99 percent of the time it's perfectly safe to be in the water with them. But sharks trigger the primordial fear of being eaten. I'm not a fool: When I'm feeding great whites, which is rare, I know that those sharks eat animals my size, so I'm always in a cage. With other sharks, which have a different diet of dead or injured fish, I wear allover body chain mail when I feed them. They can bite you accidentally—your hand is in the way! I have received minor bites, but only during feeding. The biggest risk with the chain mail is that a shark will clamp down and get its teeth stuck—if it can't get free, it will twist and arch, which could make your arm turn with the animal and cause a dislocated shoulder or elbow. That's never happened to me, but I've seen it with other professionals.

When we do dives with tourists, we use food to get the Caribbean reef sharks close enough to touch. I teach people to pet them gently on the nose so the sharks enter a state called tonic immobility, a natural hypnosis that makes them sleep. It's a specialized maneuver that I have to get in very close for—a shark would never come that close in a casual encounter with a diver. People say, 'Oh! I never knew sharks could do that!' They question what they thought they knew about sharks. When a shark is in tonic immobility, she sinks down to the bottom naturally. Then she's in my lap, this 8-foot animal under the sea. It's magical." —As told to M.W.

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