Cristina Zenato on Cage Free Diving With Great White Sharks

guadalupe island shark cage diving

Cristina Zenato is Head of Diving at UNEXSO, Grand Bahama Island, a world-renowned shark diver, and a member of the Women Divers’ Hall of Fame. She’s also one of our all time favorite advocate for sharks and female shark diver. Cristina shares her considerable knowledge and experience diving with sharks, as an oceans advocate for our toothy friends there’s no one like Cristina!

Great White Sharks, Oceans Predator or Plaything?

I am a big advocate of interaction with sharks: I believe that diving, snorkeling and being in the water with sharks is a great learning opportunity and a way to show people who cannot be close to the ocean that sharks are just animals who need understanding and protection. And I understand that swimming outside of a cage with Great White Sharks is a fascinating experience, and it can, and has been done. Yet I would not stretch the boundaries of interactions with Great White Sharks to a commercial level. There is no room for error and misjudgment.

If a person was to be “taken” by a Great White outside of the cage, the negative media could pose a risk to the entire shark diving industry and all of the positive steps we have made for sharks.  It has taken many positive outcomes to change the attitude towards sharks, but it would only take one mistake to revert us back.

Cageless Shark Diving With Great Whites 

We should look into the motivations that are pushing us outside the cage. In cave diving training we always analyze motivations to go cave diving. Some are considered positive, like the desire to improve our skills, explore new environments, enjoy special places, seeking advanced training to become a better diver. We also have what are called “red flag” motivations. Those are the thrill-seeking, defeat-danger-and-death, peer-pressure kind of motivations. So if we are honest with ourselves, what is it that pushes us outside the cage: A desire to connect? A desire to brag about it? Being able to post a picture of us next to the shark? A desire to know more?

We are entering the water cage-free with bigger and bigger sharks. We now know that sharks are very patient and very “easy” to be with in the water. However we also witnessed the accidents and the near-miss accidents when “easy” has become careless. We have been lucky, many times over.

The question is: Are we getting complacent with these animals? When are we going to push our luck and the next one riding a shark will not be in such a lucky position?

Diving With Great Whites

People who dive with Great White Sharks with a shark cage are solely responsible for their decisions and actions. They choose cage diving to ensure the animals are safe as are their divers. Without a cage divers must take full responsibility too. You cannot trust somebody else to make a judgment call on whether or not to exit a cave or be around a shark.  You need to be able to read every single twitch and movement of the shark, or sometimes sharks, and you need to trust your own judgment and be aware of your surroundings. No level of safety diver could help the unaware, distracted guest who trusts somebody else to decide for him/her.  If I were to decide one day to SCUBA dive outside a cage with a Great White, here are a few considerations I would take:

  1. First of all I would analyze my diving skills. Certification cards are not relevant: hours in the water, diving and practicing are. Buoyancy, control, global awareness and communication skills are a must. Each one of us is different but I would suggest recent diving experience, previous experience with big animals and blue water experience without big animals would be some good guidelines.
  2. Secondly, but on the same level of importance, I would want to know the divers who are offering this tour. I would want to be sure that they have been in the area, working and watching the sharks on a regular basis.  They live here, they work here and they see Great Whites over and over again.
  3. Then I would want to take time to just watch the sharks and listen to these people describing what the sharks are doing, why and what is affecting them: weather and behavior, visibility and behavior, presence of other sharks and behavior. I experienced this once in my life with a Great White handler and it was pretty amazing: it felt as if a Great White was talking to me. I spent three weeks on the boat and there was not one day that the handler did not correctly judge the coming behavior of the sharks.

There is no magic formula to decide if people are ready to cage-free dive with Great Whites, but it is not something that I would take lightly. We need to assume total control of our position in the water by taking months of observation to better understand the animals that we are sharing the water with.

If we love sharks the way we claim we do, what is a little extra time to get to know them so that our excursion will be an educated choice?

Shark Diving into The Future

I am hopeful that years from now we will be able to look back and realize most of our fears of diving cage-free with Great White Sharks were unfounded.  Up to twenty years ago people thought that feeding Caribbean Reef Sharks would have caused them to bite any diver. We have proved it differently and so human interaction and discovery has moved forward. I will be the first one to admit I was mistaken.

Mike Rutzen has spent a lifetime with Great White Sharks and taken a long time watching them, many hours every day for many years.  He regards cage-free diving with Great White Sharks as something special to be done on unique occasions: a combination of a perfect day, perfect weather and a perfect shark. His operation does not offer it to the public.

If a man who really knows Great White Sharks is so cautious, I feel it would be wise to follow the same thought process.

Cage Diving Liveaboard Pricing and Choices at Guadalupe Island

We know you have a choice of liveaboard shark diving vessels for Guadalupe Island this year. Since 2000 we have watched the shark fleet grow, and grow, and grow. Safety is a primary concern for us and we have the best safety record in the shark diving fleet.  Not only is our U.S. crew the most experienced dive operator at Guadalupe Island, but they are all federally licensed and participate in the U.S. Coast Guard’s random drug testing program. We have remained the value shark boat, offering shark cage diving for less, and the place shark divers call home with a return rate that is the envy of the fleet.