Q&A With the Legendary Diver Cristina Zenato.

Photo: Victor Douieb

Photo: Victor Douieb

Cristina Zenato re-shapes the way we think about sharks.

Q: Have you never been afraid of sharks?

”I have never been afraid, not even when Jaws came out. My parents always taught me it was just a movie. Once you are in the water with them you realise that the fear is all ungrounded and that they are actually one of the easiest animals to be with and to interact with. Knowledge is power, without knowledge we burn witches at the stake.”

Interviewing the legendary diver Cristina Zenato makes it crystal clear, the ocean is her home and where her heart is. Born in Italy but grewing up in the rainforests of African Congo; the world's second largest tropical forest, made it natural for her to connect in deep and be close to nature. ”The Congolese taught me many lessons about natural life and the importance to be in tune with it, not against it.”

Her father was a special forces military diver and from her parents she learned that all animals have a purpose and that there is nothing vicious in nature and that knowledge is better than fear. As an adventurous kid she was always in the water and dreamt of two things: becoming a Scuba Ranger that protected the reefs in the world, having sharks as friends, and actually one more thing: that her mom would stop telling her to come out of the water.

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Today she is a world renowned diver seen on BBC, Discovery, Nat Geo, ABC - the list could go on: she is also widely known as:

Q: You are also widely known as The Shark Whisperer?

“During my years under water I have developed a way of inducing a relaxed state in the sharks and sometimes they even seek my touch, when I pat them they stop swimming and slowly sinks calmly into the sand, this can last from 5 minutes up to the entire length of the dive (45 minutes). I use this method to remove parasites or when I see a shark with a hook in the mouth, the shark relax, I remove the hook which causes a great pain and it quickly swims away, only to come back and rest again on my lap, enjoying the closeness. Of most importance this method has also made it possible for me to work closely with scientists collecting behavioural data and extract DNA.”

Photo: Amanda Cotton

Photo: Amanda Cotton

Q: Your first mentor was the diving legend Ben Rose?

“ I met the diving legend Ben Rose at the Bahamas, it was a life changing moment, he became my first mentor and he taught me how to feed and handle sharks. I found my calling and was inspired to go on and further study the sharks - which led me to the work of the pioneering Dr Eugenie Clark also known as the Shark Lady, through her books and teaching I learned about the need to protect sharks.”

Photo: Lucie Drilkova

Photo: Lucie Drilkova

Q: How did you managed to protect sharks from import and export in the whole of Bahamas?

”Every time I go in the water I am on a shark awareness program, I consider sharks beautiful, perfect and vulnerable. It is very hard for people to associate sharks with the word vulnerable. Sharks have been for a very long time wrongfully villainized; they are an essential link in the chain of nature and they have been designed by nature to keep their reproductive rate low. The pressure we are putting on the oceans and sharks through coastal development, overfishing, pollution, habitat destruction and special activities like shark finning is reducing their numbers drastically and bringing many species on the brink of extinction. When I heard that such pressure could have come to the sharks in the Bahamas, where I was already living and working with sharks, I decided to bring the attention of the Bahamas Government the need to protect them for the health of our oceans and I started a petition that reached over 35000 signatures. This made the Bahamas National Trust and PEW organisation start a national educational program and all sharks are now protected. I believe that one person can be the change, because if I can change the mind of only one person and they pick up my message it multiplies.”

Q: What are your thoughts on climate change?

”I have seen huge changes, and have recorded these changes in my own diary. I have noticed that the temperature of the water fails to cool to the lows we registered 20-25 years ago, that the oceans warms up faster after the even briefer winter time and that this happens sooner in the season; that it stays warmer longer, that coral bleaching is more prominent, algae bloom widespread and that it takes a long time for the corals to recover. I noticed the disappearance of the creatures that used to be the day to day sight on every dive. And I have to admit that despite the extremely destructive force of hurricanes sometimesthey are God send for the reefs and corals, as they clean algae, lower the water temperature drastically and clear out stagnant sand.”

Q: Tell us s a bit about Project Aware?

“ I am aways working on different projects to protect the ocean and my lifelong friends the sharks, and have just joined the Project Aware Team to run the Chicago Marathon, supporting their work for ocean cleanups and shark conservation efforts. I am also exploring the caves that are under the protection of the Bahamas National Trust as they are fresh water reservoirs and aslo vital role players in the shallow waters of mangroves areas, big reproductive feeding grounds for many species of animals. By exploring and surveying the caves they can pinpoint where they are I relation to the land above them and prevent their destruction through land development, coastal clearing and other destructive activities like dumping.”

Photo: Chris Millbern

Photo: Chris Millbern

Q: What makes you happy?

“Moments, moments lived in their fulness, freediving with a friend, riding the bow of the boat to a dive site, finding a new tunnel in a cave, the sun reflecting on the clear sand underwater creating rainbows, seeing my babies (sharks) and be able to be with them.”

Exactly what she dreamt of as a kid.

All images copyright Cristina Zenato    Follow Cristina Zenato on Instagram