We chat to the ‘Mother of Sharks’, technical and cave diver – and GO Diving Show 2023 Main Stage speaker Cristina Zenato – about sharks, caves, and the lure of the deep.
Photographs courtesy of Cristina Zenato
As we always do to kick off these question-and-answer sessions, how did you first get into scuba diving, and what ignited that passion for the underwater world?
A: My passion for the underwater world is as old as I am – 50 years and counting. It is a passion for water, no matter the environment. I was lucky enough to be born in a family from the ocean, who always brought me to the ocean. My dad was a diver in the Italian special forces. His images and stories of the underwater world he explored back in the 50s gave me awe and the desire to experience it. I grew up swimming in the wild Atlantic Ocean of the Congolese coast and the Mediterranean basin around Italy and France, or the lake next to my family’s hometown in Italy.
I accessed scuba diving ‘late’ in life, at age 22, when I traveled to the Bahamas to become a certified scuba diver; before then, scuba diving was considered too dangerous and not adequate for a woman of my background and culture. That trip in 1994 would change the course of my life forever. In less than a week, I decided to make the Bahamas my home and scuba diving my life.
The Bahamas has held a special place in your heart for many years. What is it about this island nation that makes it unique in your eyes?
A: My love for the Bahamas was at first sight. I fell in love with nature’s wilderness, the unchartered territories, the empty spaces, the people, and the freedom. After submerging in the crystal beauty of the waters surrounding this unique archipelago, I realized I had finally found my home above and below the water. My heart found the same peace and happiness I experienced while growing up in Africa.
In name and sight, the Bahamas trigger the thought of Paradise on Earth, and in a way, they are; living here for the last 28 years has taught me that they are also a harsh and demanding place, and yet I have to find a better choice. I cherish the simplicity of living, the caring hand provided by anyone on the side of the road, the smiles and hello shared on any walk, and the eye contact with people. I love being able to let my dogs run over endless empty beaches or through the forest. I love that in less than a half-hour, I can be diving with sharks or in caves and that exploration and expeditions are on my doorstep, not in a faraway land.
You are world-renowned for your work with sharks, but you are also well-regarded as a diving instructor (recreational – as a PADI Course Director – and cave and tech instructor). Which came first?
A: Being a professional, recreational instructor was the way I could live and work here; however, after reaching the level of Master Scuba Diver Trainer, I stopped my growth and entirely focused on expanding the technical side and my work with sharks. I continued to grow vertically and expanded horizontally. I started diving in 1994; by 1995, I was an open water scuba instructor and, by 1996, a cave diver, and in 1999 a cave diving instructor. Course Director training came ‘late’ in my career; I am glad it happened this way. By the time I decided to embark on that aspect of my training, I had been a seasoned scuba diving professional and cave and technical diving instructor for 20 years. I feel it helped me understand the responsibility of training professionals in our industry. The decision to take that final step happened during a single conversation with Mark Caney in 2014. I completed my CD course in 2016.
Talking of the ‘men in gray suits,’ you are the ‘Mother of Sharks’. How did your affinity with sharks reach the pinnacle it is at now?
A: The same way we build a long-term relationship, with time, communication, and commitment or what I call ‘dive site fidelity’. I tried to understand their language and interpret it to facilitate encounters; I didn’t create expectations or pretend that they always behaved the same way. I base our relationship on mutual respect and trust. I travel to the site almost daily, and with time, I started to recognize the individuals, give them names, and collect biological and behavioural data. Each shark has a personality that I learned to deal with and a distinct physical appearance; a folder where images, details, and measurements are registered every six months.
You were the initiator of the movement, which resulted in the complete protection of sharks throughout the entire Bahamas. How did it feel to achieve such a momentous feat?
A: There is a beautiful and famous quote I live by from Baba Dioum (1968) ‘In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught’. The day the Bahamas announced the complete protection of sharks in our waters, I felt that I had realized the quote. It was a mix of joy and excitement and a sense of relief and peace of mind, knowing that nobody could touch the sharks from now on. Around 2009 the healthy shark population of the Bahamas became the target of international greedy and destructive fisheries; that’s when I sprang to action and created a petition requesting the government consider protecting our sharks. United with The Bahamas National Trust and the PEW organization, the legislation came into act in 2011. It is comprehensive legislation; it does not leave room for any loopholes. Being part of the initial movement and watching the momentum it created among the population, their desire to protect sharks, and their work to make it a reality is one of the proudest moments of my career.
You have worked with sharks worldwide, from South Africa and Fiji to California, North Carolina, and Mexico. What are some of the best memories of these global encounters?
A: Of the many encounters, the best part is the moment I locked eyes with a specific shark in the group, as if, in that instant, there was a bridge of communication between the two of us. Sharks watch us and know us; their acceptance of our presence in their world is fascinating and a gift I cherish each time. I remember a blue shark approaching me repeatedly while freediving in Rhode Island, as well as a massive bull shark in Fiji looking straight into my eyes. The best memories with the sharks and their personalities go hand in hand with the people I met along the way working with them. In South Africa, I sat on the boat listening to someone working with great white sharks, and I could swear it was a great white talking. I shared quiet moments with Rusi in Fiji, a precious person no longer with us who worked daily with bull sharks. Rusi invited me, welcomed me into his world, and shared without hesitation two people who could not be more different yet united without words by our love and work with sharks.
Sharks obviously have a special place in your heart, but so do caves. What is it about cave diving that attracts you so much?
A: The caves have a sense of eternity; although they change, they change too slowly in our lifetime to feel it when swimming through them. They hold a sense of time different from our fleeting lives and provide a sense of security. When I cave dive, I feel as if I am swimming through a beautiful book on the geological history of our planet. It’s as if browsing through an enormous library carved in stone. Caves tell us what it once was, what it is, and what it will be. They provide a sense of mystery and discovery; no matter how many times we swim down the same passageways, they uncover realities we were unaware of and offer answers and surprises. There is something melodic in the sound of the unwinding exploratory reel, that gentle scratching of the spool in the silence of the breaths. The light is sweeping from side to side, the mind trying to decide where to go based on feeling the cave, understanding its formation and development, in realizing that at that moment, the cave has agreed to speak to me or better that I have learned to listen.
Caves keep my sense of curiosity alive; they teach me lessons I can surface and carry with me. Caves prompt us to live to the fullest, in the now, and to enjoy every unique moment. Eventually, I discovered that caves gauge a place’s health level and all that’s around them. I cave dive for the love of cave diving paired with the desire to surface and share with others the importance of their role, the lessons they can teach us, and how to embrace life at a different level.
Between all of the epic cave-diving explorations you have been involved in and all types of shark diving, what are some of your greatest recollections?
A: A tricky question to answer, as I consider each moment a great moment; however, I believe these are some of the most remarkable: the first time and every time after that when one of the Caribbean reef sharks I work with has decided to put her head in my lap and allowed me to pet her, dropping all barriers, fear, mistrust and saying through her behaviour, at this moment I trust you, at this moment I am with you. That relationship is never taken for granted, and each time I cherish it as a special moment.
I can add that time when I witnessed an octopus giving birth in the middle of a night dive. I had been checking on this mama for quite some time. With incredible timing, I decided to swim over to her hole during a night dive as she was expelling all of her hatchlings with powerful blows.
I remember the boxfish that would see me coming and swim under my stomach for the length of the dive to leave once I ascended, swimming through billions of bioluminescence in the middle of the darkest night or discovering species crustaceans before they were catalogued and photographed.
Ultimately, the best recollections are the encounters with the silent inhabitants of the world capable of sneaking up behind me without as much as a whisper, no matter the size, and gliding in my view, unperturbed by my presence, allowing me into their world, and leaving me in awe.
In cave diving, I recollect the day I completed the connection between a cave entrance on land and an ocean blue hole in 2012. This connection between the Mermaid’s Pond to Chimney caves was the first of its kind;
The funny part? I surfaced from those accomplishments alone, as I always was, and didn’t even have one person of knowledge to share the triumph of the achievement. Luckily, I have had my husband rejoice in the work in the last few years, as we share the same passion. These recollections include expanding the Old Freetown system of over 6,000 feet of passageways, a system discovered, explored, and visited over the decades by all cave divers visiting this island, together with the expansion of Ben’s Cave system in the Lucayan National Park. I can add to this list the participation in Nat Geo cave diving expeditions in the Bahamas and Channel Islands and three weeks in the Nullarbor desert in Australia. There I was able to explore caves in the depth of the desert, sharing dives and evenings under the most amazing skies with Richard Harris, Craig Challen, Ken Smith, and Paul Hosie.
Last but not least, in 2020, the discovery of two new cave systems on the island of Grand Bahama, where we live, never before found or explored. With Kewin Lorenzen, we laid over 15 miles of lines between the two. These recollections acquire a more profound sense of accomplishment when I recall the physical work each cave has required. The clearing, the hiking, the transportation of gear to and from the vehicles through rough terrains, swamps, sharp edges, heat, insects, and my not-so-favorite sudden thunderstorms crashing down, sometimes surfacing over a one-kilometre hike back to the car. Exploration on this island comes without a support team, sherpas, or ease of access and makes each achievement even more valuable.
On the flip side, what are some of your worst diving memories?
A: Someone would think that working with sharks and caves would cause my worst recollections to go to either of these; instead, the winner crown goes to the smallest creatures in the ocean: jellyfish eggs. Erroneously knowns as sea lice, I was in Florida to conduct my PADI IDC crossover, and on the second day, a cloud of these stinging invisible creatures hit me in the face and legs sticking out from the shorty. In hours, an inch-high welt gave my chin the appearance of President Lincoln’s beard and my legs one of the boiled potatoes. I went through the entire IDC, itching and in pain. To this day, it’s the worst hit I have ever had.
Runner up as worst diving memory is my DCS hits in December 1995 and 1996; not much of a long story, but that I was logging 900 plus dives per year, and that cold, dehydration and excessive repetition created the perfect place for bubbles to form. After the second hit, two years into my diving career and a drastic life change, I was told I should consider giving up scuba diving and returning to my former job. It was a devastating sentence; I could not imagine a life without diving. Instead, I travelled back to Italy. Thanks to amazing friends, I visited a hyperbaric center in Bologna to verify I had no PFO. They confirmed that nothing but human error and too much passion for scuba diving were the causes of my hits. I returned to diving after six months of dry work on the boats. I shortly after started my technical diver training to learn better about gases, decompression, and the balance between theory and reality.
What does the future hold for Cristina Zenato?
A: A million-dollar question! If there is something I knew, but learned to appreciate more since the double-tap of Hurricane Dorian’s destruction and the following Covid crisis, the future for Cristina holds more of the same, with an open mind and a renewed desire.
As I turned 50, my professional life changed drastically yet positively. I moved from a managerial position to an independent profession specializing in concierge diving service. Together with my husband, Kewin, we were able to make a switch and focus primarily on what we love the most: sharks and caves. I returned to 28 years ago when I was a young diving instructor, but with the built opportunity to focus entirely on my work in exploration, education, and conservation at a specialized level. We provide services and training for one-on-one or one-on-two, both in shark and technical fields. We have just launched and filled our first liveaboard trip on a sailing catamaran around the Bahamas with the intent of shark diving paired with an educational component and are planning to launch more dates for 2023.
Besides the business side of diving, my parallel focus is on expanding my non-profit, People of the Water (pownonprofit.org), which is dedicated to changing people’s relationship with our aquatic world through my mantra: Exploration, Education, and Conservation. We are explorers at heart; we need to explore the unknown and the known. We then need to educate ourselves about what we have discovered to share it with others to expand the pool of knowledge. Conservation comes from those first two actions in the same way Baba Dioum taught us. I want to be the stone cast in the water, creating a ripple effect that lasts longer than my time here. After nearly three decades of educating and mentoring young local Bahamians and international students, I see the positive results; I am motivated to expand the circle further. People of the Water is the tool that allows me to cast an even bigger stone in the water. It is organized to widen the conduction and distribution of training, education, research, and studies relating to water, ocean, and environmental issues affecting said environments’ people and the animals.
Many ask me to write a book; in the past, I would have said that it was in the making. It’s now ready, but I can’t confirm when it will come out. I keep a busy schedule; for now, it sits on my hard drive waiting for a time when I will be ready to take on the complex task of finding the right match to publish it.
This article was originally published in Scuba Diver North America US #11.