Cristina Zenato attempts to shift perspectives on sharks

Cristina Zenato has been working in Fiji to promote shark tourism as a solution to stop finning around the world. — Reuters pic
Cristina Zenato has been working in Fiji to promote shark tourism as a solution to stop finning around the world. — Reuters pic

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SINGAPORE, Aug 21 — Don’t call Cristina Zenato a “shark whisperer”.

The Shark Savers ambassador and shark specialist cringes at the mention of the alias.

“Oh, I hate it! I’ve been called many names, but my least favourite has to be The Shark Whisperer,” she said. “Dr Eugenie Clark is the real shark lady.”

Known for her research on the behaviour of sharks, as well as her research on poisonous tropical fish, Clark is a pioneer in the field of scuba diving for research purposes, and to Zenato, she’s a legend.

“You have to understand what she’s like ... she made me cry when I met her. She shook my hands and said, ‘Oh, Cristina, I was really looking forward to meeting you.’”

Clark and Zenato, who was in Singapore as part of SEAA Wonders: Sharks at the S.E.A. Aquarium at Resorts World Sentosa, are in the Women Divers Hall of Fame.

The 43-year-old Zenato constantly lets loose her dramatic side, whether she’s talking about her love for sharks (“Sharks are worth your life because they maintain the oceans and, without them main ecosystems will collapse!”) or the stubbornness of most people (“People will always find the negative side of what you do. Instead of looking at the big picture, they only focus on the small one.”).

Her mentor, legendary diver Ben Rose, took Zenato under his wing 20 years ago and taught her to swim with sharks. “He said I had a gift, and I was his little protegee,” Zenato said. “By 1996, he gave me the entire shark programme.”

In the water, Zenato does a combination of petting and stroking the sharks to place them in a state of physical and mental repose, which she said is wrongly termed as tonic immobility.

“I call it the relaxed state,” she said. “The difference between what I do and real tonic immobility is that you can force tonic immobility onto every shark of every size, gender or species. It’s done in aquariums and in the open ocean by forcefully turning the shark upside down.

“People say, ‘Oh, we’ve been doing tonic immobility for 30 years! You’re not doing something new,’” Zenato said, rolling her eyes. “Well, I am, actually. I use minimal touch and never force. I just give them a gentle rub, and if the shark doesn’t want to be rubbed, they’ll swim away. Not everyone can put a shark to sleep. It has to be the right person, the right shark, at the right time. The shark has to want it.”

Using the technique primarily for hook removal, Zenato believes that when asleep, sharks can be brought to divers to be “petted”, thus fostering a stronger bond between the two.

Having dived with sharks in places such as the Bimini Shark Lab and in the waters off South Africa, North Carolina and the Little Bahama Bank, Zenato said she has an affinity for female sharks.

“I think it has to do with the fact that the females on my dive are the biggest. The bigger, more dominating sharks are the ones that are most comfortable to be petted. Size does matter,” she said.

Zenato has been working in Fiji to promote shark tourism as a solution to stop finning around the world. “Between you and me, the people in the Bahamas once could not care less about sharks! But these Bahamians who used to run a night-time shark fishing trip are now running a day-tour glass bottom boat bringing tourists out on the water. The motivation may not be a good 100 per cent, but it’s obtaining results. These people are living off keeping sharks alive,” said Zenato, who was also promoting the Finished With Fin movement here.

For Zenato, it’s always been a challenge to shift people’s perspectives on sharks, especially with movies such as Jaws and The Reef.

“Water makes us very weak,” she explained. “In the water, you can’t see or hear. When you open your eyes underwater, it’s all blurry, so you can’t see the shark coming.” Zenato’s voice drops to a dramatic hush: “But sharks are very vulnerable. They need a spokesperson.”

She added: “When I was younger, I used to be scared of Jaws, and my parents would say ‘Oh, don’t be silly! We taught you better, it’s just an animal!’

“I’ve always believed that my voice could make a change. Sure, we can’t save the world, but if I could change one person, I’m good with it.”


SEAA Wonders: Sharks is on at the S.E.A. Aquarium at Resorts World Sentosa until Aug 31. For details, visit — Today

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