Life in Salt: An Interview with Underwater Explorer and ‘First Lady of Sharks’ Cristina Zenato
by Owen James Burke
“Water, sharks and other animals have never made me feel scared. When I am underwater I am home.”
Cristina Zenato grew up in the savanna and the Congolese rainforest of Africa and returned to Italy, her birthplace, to complete high school. She worked in an Italian hotel after high school, and when she received a vacation, took off for the Bahamas, where she became a certified scuba diver. She returned to Italy, but being a speaker of five languages, was quickly offered a job at a Bahamian hotel. Two weeks later, she was back, and within eight months, she had quit her job at the hotel and begun working as a full-time scuba professional.
Scuba diving and shark sightings go hand in hand in the Bahamas. Cristina started out just wanting to be able to swim with sharks. Thanks in large part to mentor, explorer and shark feeding legend Ben Rose, it was only a matter of time before she began to interact with them. Her passion for the animals has only grown since.
Twenty years later, at 42, she not only swims and dives, but dances with sharks. She has become renowned for her work in shark conservation and public awareness, and has been crowned with an array of titles including “Shark Whisperer,” “Shark Dancer,” “Shark Charmer” and my favorite, “First Lady of Sharks.”
Scut: So you took to the outdoors while growing up in the Congo in the 1970s; were you on the coast? How did you first get to experience the water?
CZ: Actually I didn’t take to the water while in the Congo, I took to the water thanks to my mom and dad’s passion and background from the sea. My mom comes from a coastal area in Italy and my dad loved any body of water more than anything before I could walk.
Can you talk a little about your transition from Africa to the Bahamas? When did you move to the Bahamas and what did you do when you first got there?
I moved from Africa back to Italy and I completed high school. I was working at a hotel in the city in Italy and when I was given vacation prior to the busy season, on a whim decided to find a location where I could learn how to scuba dive. Since I was a child, I wanted to be an underwater scuba ranger and scuba dive like my dad. The travel agency found me a place on Grand Bahama. I signed up, went to the island, became a certified scuba diver and went back to the Bahamas within two weeks of the end of my vacation to work the front desk at a resort. After 8 months and becoming a Dive Master, I left the resort and started to work as a scuba professional.
There are more than enough fishermen with missing fingers and hands around the world who can tell you not to try this at home (with or without chainmail). Cristina can do it, but that doesn’t mean you can. The chainmail suit she is wearing takes about three months to make, weighs around 20 pounds, and costs $6000 US.
So you were mentored by shark legend Ben Rose, is he the person who led you to experiment with what some refer to as ‘tonic immobility?’
Sharks were already on the sites I was diving and yes Ben Rose was the person who trained me to feed and work with sharks. I really do not believe what I do is tonic, I do believe what I induce is just a gentle relaxed state of the animal. Tonic (a state of paralysis which animals enter which is believed to be a mechanism of defense to avoid or deter predators) is a natural response of sharks to threat or stress and if you look at any of the interactions I have with my sharks neither of those circumstances apply.
But to answer your question, I guess it is inner desire to connect with animals and the human nature that requires a touch; we are tactile creatures. Being surrounded by sharks can only lead to wanting to touch them and connect with them. It was not an experiment, it just happened and from there it moved forward.
What is it about sharks that appeals to you? Why not dolphins or whales?
Sharks to me are vulnerable creatures. I have always been fascinated by them. At the same age I decided I would become an underwater scuba ranger, I also decided I would swim with sharks and they would not eat me. When I became involved with sharks in the Bahamas, they were mainly the villains of the water world and sometimes beyond that. Today there is a little more understanding and desire to protect (not much outside the marine world), but back in 1994-1995 sharks were perceived as negative by the majority of people and they needed people to speak for them, to explain how they are simply animals, part of an ecosystem, equally important and necessary and in need of understanding and protection.
Sharks are beautiful, different, unique and a masterpiece of nature. I just didn’t feel the same fascination towards marine mammals as I felt towards sharks.
Do you have certain species you enjoy studying more than others?
Caribbean Reef sharks will always be my favorite sharks, just because they are the sharks I dive and work with on a daily basis.
What are some things that you enjoy most about what you do?
There are two: one is the private moments I have with the sharks, the moment where everything sits still and there is nothing more than “now,” with a shark relaxed in my lap and the feeling of the jaw moving up and down to facilitate the pumping of the water through the gills (buccal pumping-contrary to popular belief many species of sharks can rest on the ocean floor and ventilate without the need to continuously swim). It is a moment that can last 20-40 minutes, however long I have to sit there with just one or two sharks in my lap. The other one is the moment you surface and you look in the eyes of the divers you just shared your love and passion for sharks with and you can see that reflected back. It is the moment that you realize that even if it may be one person, you have made a difference, you have helped somebody realize something new, something different and you have inspired them to want to learn more, protect more and change.
Have you had any frightening experiences in the water (with or without sharks) that you care to share? Sometimes it looks like absolute pandemonium around you in your videos; do you ever feel overwhelmed?
The most frightening experiences come from humans and their fear. Being a diving instructor and guide for many years, my life has been put more in danger by the panicked reactions of divers while on a common dive. Water, sharks and other animals have never made me feel scared. When I am underwater I am home.
Seems like your salty stories would fill a book.
Twenty years worth, twenty years of daily being out on the boats, teaching, diving, exploring, connecting, finding, discovering, marveling, twenty years in small flashes of found friends, bright smiles, small moments, big moments, lost friends…riding on the bow of the boat to the dive sites, looking at the horizon thinking it was the beginning of my world, swimming together with my best friend during a night to check on an octopus guarding eggs to arrive at the exact moment while she was blowing all the little hatchlings into the darkness of the night, finding a sea spider before it was even listed on an identification book, looking up while having my first shark in my lap sleeping and seeing Ben Rose (Uncle Ben for me) looking down on me standing in the sand, nodding and smiling, following a wreck during it’s voyage sinking to film it all the way to the bottom of the ocean, dispersing ashes at sea of a lost friend, swimming through caves nobody else had ever discovered before and laying lines in tunnels that were seeing a human presence for the first time (I am a full cave diving instructor and a cave explorer), looking at the amazing stars so far from shore the darkness is so thick it’s palpable, breath-hold diving and dancing with a manta, finding my first fossils, watching the rainbows cast by sunlight on a perfect calm and clear day dance over the bright sandy bottom, floating over deep blue water, disappearing through clouds of silver sides, washing the encrusted salt from the eyelashes at the end of the day…
What are some of your favorite books of the sea?
I have a library of books about the ocean and the sharks, but here are some of my favorites:
The Lady and the Sharks – Dr. Eugenie Clark (an inspiration, a first in the world for sharks conservation, a friend); Neutral Buoyancy – Tim Ecott, a little about everything adventures in the liquid world; The Private Life of Sharks – Michael Bright, if you really want to know and understand sharks; The Hungry Ocean – Linda Greenlaw, a true life account from the woman captain of the Hannah Boden, sister ship to the Andrea Gail in the Perfect Storm novel, a mix of humor, hard and human stories and her experience at sea; and Ocean’s End – Colin Woodward, an account about the endangered state of the world’s oceans and the need for humans to change.
Do you have any gear you’d suggest?
I have few staples in my diving locker, all my gear picked, used, evaluated and rated as instructor’s proof (basically a day to day brutal use of it and the survival rate): Waterproof wetsuits, Light Monkey dive and cave lights and reels (those objects that allow me to find my way out of a cave) Scubapro Jetfins, Cressi masks, Shearwater dive computers, Apeks regulators not to mention to this date the strongest gear bags ever: Gorilla bag from Cressi and the mesh bag from Tulsa.
In retrospect, where do you think life would have taken you, had you not discovered scuba diving?
I think often about that–what if I had not taken that trip to become certified, what if I have not left everything to follow scuba diving? Where I was in Italy was not good for me, I was slowly fading away. I love life though and I think the desire to live life as this magnificent adventure and discovery would have allowed me to find a different path, a different passion, maybe in the mountains. I am not sure. But I am glad with what I chose. Most likely it would have started off by following my passion for languages and [I’d have] stayed in the hotel industry and traveled through Europe and maybe farther.
What do you do when you’re not diving with sharks, writing, traveling or working?
Teaching, taking underwater pictures, diving for fun, cave diving, exploring and mapping virgin underwater caves, diving with anything else or anywhere else I have an opportunity to, giving presentations at aquariums, clubs, and anywhere people want me to share my experience, exploring mountaineering…but in the small moments of my day, reading (I don’t own a TV, but I have an immense library), walking and cuddling with my dog (a rescue who adopted me last year), running, yoga, and Skyping with some of the most amazing friends spread all over the world.
(Photo: Amanda Cotton)
What’s next for you?
Anything that has to do with my motto: Exploration, Education, Conservation. Explore new places and new techniques, new animals and new environments, educate myself and others on them to foster the desire to promote conservation. In the short term I am completing the Course Director training and working on a special underwater project and book with my dear friend and talented photographer Amanda Cotton. I am also writing my own book but usually that is during the hours between midnight and seven am (it’s a joke some of my friends have for me: ‘…Cristina, when you have time, between midnight and 7am could you please…’)
(All photographs courtesy of Cristina Zenato’s library)