The Sharkman meets Cristina Zenato
Sharkman: You where born in Italy but you grew up in African Congo. It was there that you discovered your love for the outdoors and the oceans. Tell us something about your teens.
Cristina: I shared my teen years between Africa and Italy. I loved my life in the Congo; it was a mix of the rain forest and wild ocean.
We followed the railway construction through the Country, and when we had time, we drove down to the coast and spent Sunday on the stormy Atlantic shore.
I have always been a water baby, and while growing up in Africa, I had the opportunity to fall in love with wild nature. I learned very soon that knowledge is the power against fear, and that if we know and understand, we also appreciate and coexist. I grew up a little untamed, and for sure away from society’s constructed rules other teens my age would have encountered in more western civilization.
We were one small, tight group of children and teens, and for us, that lifestyle was the norm, not the exception. We were wild, free, always aware of nature, its beauty, and its dangers. In the middle of the most critical changes to adulthood, my family and I moved from the Congo’s central rain forest. My landscape changed from gorillas jumping from tree to tree in the rising morning dew, to northern Italy, where the mist was never-ending fog.
There the days became dark too soon, and the number of people I shared a classroom with was more than I had ever interacted with on the entire camp while living in Africa. Admittedly the final teen years in Italy were not the best in my book.
Sharkman: A huge change. What made you decide to leave?
Cristina: At the time, Italy was too tight for me; the weather, the people, the lifestyle, the mindset of those around me, what they considered a priority, nothing matched with how I grew up and how my family functioned. I honestly struggled to find my place and my footing. Through a series of coincidences and choices, I landed in the Bahamas to complete my open water course, and here I found a home above and below the water. I realised that living here would allow me to make my dreams come true and that the lifestyle reflected the world in which I grew up.
Sharkman: So it was in the Bahamas that you discovered scuba diving. What was your first diving experience like?
Cristina: It was simply perfect; the crystal-clear water welcomed me, and through the sun’s rays, I spotted my first shark. I loved the feeling of being weightless, the freedom of movement, the colours, and listening to all the cracklings and popping of the reef. I felt a mix of awe and overwhelm, but I primarily surfaced in love with that world and scuba diving.
Sharkman: I can perfectly understand that as I feel the same way on every dive. You soon decided to make diving your life and left all else behind. What prompted this decision?
Cristina: My love for the ocean was the trigger to my decision. That and the island lifestyle. I speak five languages, and I could find a job in a hotel while I continued my scuba education. Once I became a diving professional, I made a lateral move and never looked back.
Sharkman: Cristina, you said that your first ever shark encounter was on your first dive. How did that make you feel?
Cristina: Yes, my first shark encounter was on my first open water certification dive! Talk about being immersed in your childhood dream of swimming with sharks on your first ocean scuba experience. I was mesmerized by these animals swimming all around us, their perfect bodies moving effortlessly, not something I can say I was doing efficiently on my first dive.
For a very long time, no matter how many dives I went on, I would always dread to leave the bottom; I remember floating at my safety stop looking below me with a lump in my throat as if I was saying goodbye forever. I recall I used to wave goodbye to the ocean and the sharks every time I left.
Sharkman: That is how I ended every dive. Seems we share many things in common. I know that in a short time you became a professional shark feeder. You then learned about “tonic immobility” in sharks, but you took this a step further when you discovered that your touch was having a special effect on the sharks. How did this come about?
Cristina: In the beginning, I thought that what I witnessed was tonic immobility. I also thought that to induce that state, I had to continuously rub the snout area, where the sharks have the Ampullae of Lorenzini. I started to read about it. I found out from the few scientific papers available for consultation that tonic immobility (TI) is a natural response to threat or stress. I started to watch the sharks, identifying who came in to be petted, the ones who never did, and realised that it was not TI at all.
What I created with these sharks is a mutual relationship; it requires the right shark, the right time, and the understanding that ultimately it is the shark’s choice and not my command making this possible. My sharks voluntarily come into my lap and allow me to pet them. The shark picks the moment, decides how long to stay and when to leave. Every time it’s a privilege to be accepted and trusted by a wild animal putting herself in a vulnerable position.
Sharkman: Have you done this with other species besides your Caribbean reef sharks?
Cristina: Briefly with Blue sharks in Rhode Island; there was one that, after I had been ten minutes in the water with her, came straight to me and just touched me and stopped swimming as I petted her. We were freediving over the deep blue, so as soon as the shark started to sink, she woke up. That experience was vital in realising that “one size does not fit all,” The interaction I have with Caribbean Reef sharks is special and unique. Some species can’t stop swimming and relax comfortably in my lap; some are too big to welcome.
People challenged me through the years about attempting this with other, usually bigger species. A relationship is built between specific individuals with time, knowledge, and understanding. It’s not a matter of size or species, nor helicoptering into a site for a couple of trips per year and trying to do something to check a box. If we start putting size and species as part of the “look what I can do,” we lose the real connection, and it becomes about satisfying a need for ego.
Sharkman: Very true. You affectionately refer to the sharks as your babies. Do you find that the same individual sharks keep coming to rest in your lap?
Cristina: I know all the sharks I dive with; some love to be petted and some don’t. I usually have three to four individuals who like to come for connection. They sometimes seem to rotate in preference. Some weeks, Grandma seems keener, then other times, Stumpy. I am not sure what causes the changes, but I let them decide depending on their feelings. The most I have had at once in my lap has been four; as I was resting with one, another one glided in and just settled herself; they kind of pile up on top of each other.
Sharkman: Wow that must be awesome. Was there ever a moment when you felt in danger whilst diving with sharks?
Cristina: Never; I find sharks as one of the most comfortable creatures to be with, for sure easier than human beings. There is not one mean bone in their bodies, well they don’t have bones, but you understand the expression.
Sharks are some of the purest creatures I have encountered in my life; they are not vicious, they don’t plot, they are not conniving. I never felt in danger when on regular dives, and any species of sharks would show up. I believe that knowledge is power, and I prepare for the specialised dives I conduct. As I said, one size does not fit all, and we need to be alert and aware underwater of what we are doing, what’s happening around us, and what people are doing on nearby sites or the surface. This awareness needs to be then inclusive of the species we encounter and their behaviour around us. Remember, we are underwater, and as a species, we don’t belong there, so it’s vital to be present at any moment.
Sharkman: Besides the sharks, you also have a great passion for cave diving and exploration. You have discovered and mapped countless caves. It takes more hard work for preparation, planning and safety for these sort of dives. What does this involve?
Cristina: Cave diving is, for me, a lifestyle. It is a discipline that requires time and dedication, but first of all, training and the correct mindset. Currently, I am conducting 4-5 hour cave dives using a sidemount rebreather. Using this gear gives me the freedom for further exploration, time to investigate, retrace my steps and attempt other places without the issue related to open circuit and the lowering of my gas supply. On the other end, it requires more time in preparing the dives and in the calculations of what to carry should something go wrong (Rebreathers are machines and, as such prone to failure like all other machines we take underwater).
Usually, one cave dive requires one day of preparation before the dive. There are checks to ensure that all the gear is functioning, testing for possible leaks, and keeping everything in perfect condition.
There is the preparation of the rebreather and the oxygen and the gas in the tanks, you need to calculate gas needs, bottom time requirements, and be aware of issues such as high CNS levels. It then requires physical work the day of transporting the gear to the cave. For that reason, staying in shape and eating healthy are two fundamentals in my lifestyle. After carrying everything, we make sure again that each piece works at the site. In some locations, we take a lot of the gear the day before the dive and only carry the rebreather, drysuit, and other small gear pieces on the dive day. This method helps us save energy for the cave dive.
I think the most crucial part for me is mindset. We usually teach not to have goal-oriented dives, but it is normal to have a list of tasks we want to complete during a cave dive, i.e., collect data, map, film, check instruments. What is important is that we can call the dive, before or during, regardless of the list we set for ourselves, and decide that safety is the most critical aspect of our mission. It sounds easy standing on the outside to call a dive if something, even minuscule, doesn’t line up, either physically or mentally. Imagine though the preparation has taken two days, a lot of physical and mental work invested, and while ready at the surface to submerge, the need to call the dive arises. That is the most crucial part of cave diving, being able to say not today.
Sharkman: When planning these exploration cave dives, how many divers/non divers are involved and does each team member have a special role?
Cristina: For the longest time I was the only one planning and preparing for these dives. In the last two years, I have found an equally passionate and interested buddy, Kewin Lorenzen. We prepare everything together. We do our surface work and support and we are our own equipment specialists; no one else helps us. We have similar roles and we both conduct exploration, mapping, survey, and scientific work. We tend to gravitate towards what we are more apt to and they balance each other out, but we are both capable of completing all tasks.
Sharkman: Back to sharks… you travel all over the world not only to dive with the sharks, but also as a huge ambassador for shark conservation. How critical is the shark conservation status and what needs to be done to protect them?
Cristina: Sharks are not doing very well in this human-dominated world. We have created a very challenging place for them to survive. We pollute at levels never registered before the industrial era; we occupy most of the coastline where many species mate and give birth to their young and keep them in nurseries, such as mangroves, kelp forest, and river estuaries. We then attack them directly by overfishing their food, bycatch, and finning which are cruel practices.
Due to their nature, late sexual maturity, slow reproductive rate and small litters, they are affected even more by our constant attacks. To protect them and their oceans, we need to review how we live our lives. We need to understand that we need sharks for healthy oceans, and they belong there, not us. I think we have to make changes in production, use less plastic, change our consumption standards, review the way we eat, and move back to a more natural connection with our world (note I am not saying people need to turn vegan). Still, respect seasons, reduce waste of food, and stop expecting to have always everything available at any time when we go shopping. The most significant change we need to implement is to review the way we are populating this world. I don’t believe that there should be a government regulating that, but as “intelligent” creatures, we should review the numbers we are reaching and how this number is putting a strain on the entire planet and the other animals sharing it with us.
Sharkman: So very true. Cristina, you are also famous for removing and collecting hooks from shark’s mouths. How many do you have?
Cristina: More or less I estimated at being over 300.
Sharkman: That is quite a collection. You have a life full of adventures and must have many memorable moments. Is there one that you consider the best?
Cristina: I think the best moment is the one when I am in the now. I have witnessed so many things underwater I cannot say one was better than the other, but the best is when I am right there fully mentally, and I am appreciating what I am observing for the marvel that nature is. It could be the moment one of my girls lays her head in my lap. I can feel her ventilating with the opening and closing of her jaw, her body weight on my thighs. It could be that time when I witnessed an octopus giving birth to all her hatchlings and sending them off into the ocean, or discovering a new species of marine life never before observed.
Maybe the best moment was having a fish coming over to see me every dive and spending the time attached to my chest. It could be when I surfaced from my five years of exploration work and found my way from a cave on land to an ocean blue hole,. Or when I discovered ancient remains inside the caves, when I floated in the middle of a crystal room created thousands of years before I was there and bound to be there for thousands of years after I am gone. I also consider the best moment when the sun reflects itself against the sand, creating beautiful rainbows. In the peaceful moment, sharks, jacks, groupers swim around in perfect coexistence while the rest of the reef and creature go about their day almost unaware of our presence.
Sharkman: I have noticed that you refer to your “girls”. Do you get no males coming to you?
Cristina: The group is formed by primarily girls and a few boys, but the ones allowing me to pet them are only females.
Sharkman: I wonder why. Let us take a minute and watch you at work.
Sharkman: Simply amazing. Cristina, you have been involved in many documentaries and films. You give educational talks, teach divers in many different aspects of diving, you promote conservation and you were also inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame in 2011. What comes next?
Cristina: I plan to continue my route in more or less the same way, as diving and teaching are still a huge component of my day, with a further expansion into science, both in caves and with sharks. I am working on moving away from my work’s strict tourism side to conduct more educational and science-based programmes. I am working on two different books and the development of more internet bases outreach programmes. As exploration, education, and conservation remain the pillars of my work and belief; I have a lot of my time reserved to expand the reach of People of the Water, my nonprofit www.pownonprofit.org I founded in 2019.
Sharkman: Is there a final comment or message that you would like to pass on to our readers?
Cristina: I am a firm believer in the power of one; I base my life on the story of the Star Thrower (Loren Eiseley), and whenever I feel that I might not make a difference, I refer back to it. It’s best to do something small all the time than not to do anything because it’s not big enough.
Sharkman: Cristina, I wish you a lot of success in all your endeavours. It is a great pleasure to meet you and get to know you better. Thank you for being with us here at Sharkman’s World.
Cristina: Thank you for asking to share some of my stories; it is my pleasure.
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