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Swimming with Sharks

Stories of shark attacks are unnerving for those who enjoy swimming in the ocean. They deepen the controversy about how close humans should even get to these animals. While defenders of sharks acknowledge they should be treated with a healthy dose of fear, they also say sharks are highly misunderstood. Of over 380 types of sharks, only 3 or 4 kinds are known to attack humans, and there are fewer than 80 such attacks a year. On the other hand, many types of sharks are on the verge of extinction, due to human fishing practices. VOA-TV's Zulima Palacio went diving with a woman who takes divers under water to experience "swimming with sharks".

Every day for the last five years, Christina Renatto has taken divers into the waters off Grand Bahama Island, north of the Caribbean. She is part of the Underwater Explorers Society. Aboard the boat Explorer, Christina Renato prepares for the dive, which will be no ordinary dip in the water.

"If you do not wish to participate in this dive this is the moment to get off this boat, go to the front desk and get a full refund. The reason why is - we are dealing with wild animals. One last recommendation, nothing has ever happened on this dive so far, but should something-go wrong… either Chikako, Franco, or myself are trained to make sure everybody will get back on board this boat," Christina Renato said.

Groups of divers have paid to watch Christina Renatto feed and pet… sharks. The 11 kilos of metal mesh she wears over her dive suit offer some protection from a shark attack.

"They definitely are gonna ignore you, they are going to come in, swim above you, come in, turn around, touch you with their tails and fins and everything else, but they usually don't go after divers, they go after the fish," Christina Renato said.

After the details are clear to all the participants, Christina Renatto and the group of divers jump into shark-infested waters.

The spectator divers watch as she puts herself in the middle of the sharks' mealtime by feeding them frozen fish. They also watch with fascination as some of the sharks approach her and allow her to hold them, pet them and even kiss them.

"It's very hard to love a shark, especially after the name that this animals have. It's a fish, is cold blooded, it bites and has sharp teeth. So by kissing it I show them how close a person can get, how comfortable they can be, and how much they allow you to do this. That's why I cuddle them and I kiss them. I wouldn't say they really like it, but it definitely doesn't disturb them," Christina Renato said.

Why someone would want to do this may be a mystery to most of us. Why the sharks allow it, is not fully understood either.

Ollie Ferguson started diving with sharks over 12 years ago. Today, he is Vice-President of the Underwater Explorers Society.

"There is a lot of speculation. Some people feel that it's the tactile, the interactions just of having your back rubbed. Others feel that there is an electrolysis that take place between the chain mail on the glove and the sensor receptors on the sharks that they somehow enjoy it," Ollie Ferguson said.

Others theorize that the sharks know and trust the feeders. And as the sharks are touched and held motionless in the water, their blood flow is reduced along with the flow of oxygen putting them in a trance known as hypoxic shock. This, with the rubbing, may be a pleasant experience for the shark.

So just who is this woman that risks it all, to feed and pet one of the most feared creatures of the sea? Christina Renatto tries to explain.

"I think a girl, a woman with a passion for the water, for the ocean, for the underwater world," Renatto said.

And just how much longer will she risk her life with sharks?

"As long as I wake up in the morning and look forward to do it. The day I'm going to come to work and realize I don't want to be out there with them because I am too tired, I'm too bored, or too scared…. The day my mind set will go like that, I will stop, because that's gonna be the day I'm going to get hurt," Renatto said.

At the end of each dive, she motions good-bye to the divers and moves away from them, attracting the sharks to her so they can surface safely.

Back on board the Explorer, the divers realize Christina Renatto has given them a once in a lifetime underwater experience.