Lifestyle & Human Interest

Brave Woman Shoves Arm Elbow-Deep into Shark's Mouth To Remove Hook


We are supposed to be afraid of sharks — right? I mean, that’s what decades of popular media have taught us.

The 1975 thriller “Jaws” made sharks into horror staples, and its sequel added the incendiary tagline, “Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water.” Silly series like the “Sharknado” franchise and most serious offerings such as the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” have only added to the animal’s ferocious reputation.

We all know that these finned predators can do serious damage. But do they really deserve our reflexive fear?

One woman doesn’t think so, and she’s gone so far as to play shark dentist. According to USA Today, Cristina Zenato, an ocean advocate, has spent about two-and-a-half decades befriending Bahamian sharks.

“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,” she said. “Not to mention the hooks themselves sometimes piercing my skin.”

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As frightening as that might sound, Zenato isn’t taking undue risks. For one thing, she only works with Caribbean reef sharks. She says that she doesn’t have enough experience with bigger species to safely stick her arm elbow-deep down their gullets.

Also, she knows the animals she works on. Zenato recognizes them on sight, understands their quirks and has even given them nicknames.

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

Would you put your hand into a shark's mouth?

“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.”

San Diego, California, based photographer Matthew Meier said, “My first time to witness Cristina feeding the sharks was amazing. I expected an adrenaline rush, but the dive was so peaceful and calm.”

Not every hook removal goes smoothly, but Zenato has managed to help some truly unruly sharks, including one she nicknamed Foggy Eye. “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. After several tours and attempts, I had been able to see that the hook was lodged inside her mouth, on the bottom.

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“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.” But after that incident, Foggy Eye became an entirely different sort of shark.

Zenato said, “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.”

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A graduate of Wheaton College with a degree in literature, Loren also adores language. He has served as assistant editor for Plugged In magazine and copy editor for Wildlife Photographic magazine.
A graduate of Wheaton College with a degree in literature, Loren also adores language. He has served as assistant editor for Plugged In magazine and copy editor for Wildlife Photographic magazine. Most days find him crafting copy for corporate and small-business clients, but he also occasionally indulges in creative writing. His short fiction has appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines. Loren currently lives in south Florida with his wife and three children.
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