Interview: Cristina Zenato
Explorer, Conservationist, Shark Professional, Writer
How would you describe yourself?
A passionate and dedicated individual with a desire for exploration, education, and conservation.
How long have you been diving?
I have been diving for 24 years, and as a professional for the last 23.
What made you want to become a diver?
Since childhood I have always wanted to be an underwater scuba ranger. I wanted to travel the world’s oceans and make sure that they were protected and that divers respected the rules. Being the diver was always part of me; the first breath underwater was the defining moment in the decision to leave everything behind so I could keep being a diver, to make my childhood dream come true.
Most memorable marine life encounter?
The first time a shark put her head in my lap and allowed me to pet her. I remember her weight on my thighs, the movement of the jaw as she pumped water through the gills to ventilate, I remember the immense sense of peace and connection and the desire for it to never end. I am fortunate enough to keep repeating this moment and encounter through my work. Each time it happens, it renews itself as the most breathtaking moment.
How did diving change your life?
I completely changed my life for diving. While on vacation on Grand Bahama Island, I accepted an opportunity. In less than two weeks I went from being a guest learning how to dive to working at the front desk. I left everything behind – boyfriend, job, car – and moved to the island to be able to work to pay for diving on a daily basis. A year later I was a professional diver and never looked back.
Diving has shown me a different way of living, it has taught me the importance of being in the now, it has allowed me to heal and grow. I can see nature and life working from within, I am not an external observer remotely witnessing the process but an integral part of it. Along the way I have met incredible people, learned from talented mentors, and forged bonds of friendships.
Who is your go-to dive buddy?
I do not have a specific go-to dive buddy. I have been on this island witnessing a river of people coming and going. Through the years I have had unique dive buddies, some I have even trained from the beginning, growing together beyond the instructor-student level. If the role is reversed and I visit a place, my go-to buddy becomes the person I visit. I can actually say that my go-to buddy is everywhere in the world and at the same time here on this island.
“The biggest accomplishments are in my day-to-day diving life, in meeting the young people I once trained and mentored as grown diving professionals and stewards for the oceans. My accomplishments are encapsulated in the memories of smiles exchanged underwater, and the grin of pure wonder and amazement I receive from divers once they drop their fear of sharks and connect with their beauty and magic.”
What about sharks fascinates you so much?
When I look at a shark I see a living being, an individual; I connect to a mind and personality, I feel a soul. There is something absolutely perfect about them, the way they have evolved, the different sizes and shapes and how they have adapted to their environment. They fascinate me because they are so different from what everyone else makes them to be. They are perfect, beautiful, and yet vulnerable. Sharks bring me serenity and peace, they allow me to be myself.
What is your favourite dive site?
There are two that are special to me. The first one is Shark Junction, where I conduct the shark dives. This is where I have the encounters with my babies, where I experienced our first connection and where it keeps repeating. The sun rays come straight through the water casting dancing rainbows over the white surface of the Bahamian sand. Under those rainbows, the sharks seem to swim in slow motion and I love watching their shadows moving over the sand.
The other is the Jurassic room, a place I discovered during my dives in the Zodiac system on Sweetings Cay. Here the decorations look as ancient as the world itself and yet they also speak of recent activity. Old calcite is covered in new layers, dark colours mixing with lighter shades.
What is the appeal of cave diving for you?
Cave diving is discovery; I just love trying to understand them and read them, finding new tunnels and new areas. Caves are my galaxy to explore and my time machine. I love to learn from the cave, to listen to its story, to find the connections that were missed by previous visitors. There is beauty in caves; there is science; there is history and discovery.
Where would you like to dive but haven’t?
I would love to dive in the cave that I have yet to discover. I honestly do not have a specific bucket list. I feel that if the opportunity arises I will have access to those places I find myself thinking of, but if it doesn’t I will find different places I have not even considered. Meanwhile I keep scouting the island to find new leads and new places.
Favourite dive snack?
Mixed nuts by the hand full.
Favourite diving movie?
“Don’t rush the stages of training and experience. I encourage my students to take time to dive and experience in between courses, to share, to build not only vertically but laterally. I encourage divers to use gear and technology to their advantage to enhance their skills and capabilities, not to make up for the lack of them. Slow down during each dive. Take the time to observe the small and the incredible, to marvel at the uniqueness of each place. It is cool and incredible to see the big creatures and the all mighty sharks and the massive schools of fish, but at times it’s also good to look from the base up, to connect the dots, to watch the details of each creature, no matter how small something might be.”
Favourite piece of equipment?
I have several different gear configurations and at the right time I love each of them for the purpose they are designed for. My faithful pieces are my jet fins and my Scubapro frameless mask. A mention for affection goes also towards my Neptunic chainmail suit, the one I use to work with sharks. My chain suit is “the barrier that allows me to drop barriers” between the sharks and me, but also between the sharks and the rest of the world. It is a piece of safety gear used to prevent accidental bites that allows me to welcome the sharks in my lap and by doing so to open the perception about sharks to a different level.
What’s next for you?
More of the same. I try to conduct a life where exploration and discovery are part of my day to day routine. Specifically I am working on a new cave exploration and survey. I have also almost completed my first book and am working on my second one. I am finding more opportunities to share my experiences through public speaking. I am also working on a new, unique project that connects water and us, life above and below the surface, but it’s still under wraps.
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