CHOOSE YOUR LOCATION
You've heard of tree-huggers. Well, Cristina Zenato is a shark-hugger. She is world renowned for the special relationship she's been able to develop with wild Caribbean reef sharks, which she demonstrates by "cuddling" them - it's as if they decided to take an afternoon nap in her lap. Actually, what she's doing is inducing tonic immobility in the sharks by using a specialized technique combined with a very gentle touch, enabling her to study the animals without stressing them out. Cristina's the first woman in the world able to pull this off. But that shouldn't be too surprising; she's racked up a number of firsts throughout the course of her diving career. For example, as an avid cave diver and underwater explorer, she's the first woman ever to connect a freshwater inland cave with a saltwater ocean system. When she's not diving, Cristina is a member of the Women Divers Hall of Fame, The Explorers Club, the Oceans Artists Society, and she's active in a number of other nonprofit organizations. But if you really want to know Cristina you have to follow her under water where's she's more at home than on land, hanging out with her shark friends on a white-sand bottom in the clear waters of the Bahamas.
I was born in Italy, but I grew up exploring the rain forests and savannahs of the African Congo. My life has always been drawn to the outdoor life, and especially to the ocean. When I was 22 years old I took a vacation to the Bahamas where I learned how to scuba dive. That was it. Right then and there I decided to drop everything, make the Bahamas my home and diving my life.
I currently live in Freeport, Grand Bahama, where I am the dive operations manager, and where diving is my day-to-day life. My two main passions are sharks and caves. I am a shark feeder (some people call me a shark cuddler), but I'm also a shark conservationist, a behaviorist and a firm believer in the need to protect and promote the well being of sharks and their environments. To that end, I train professionals and help operations understand what a shark dive entails and how to go about it safely so the thousands of divers who come to the Bahamas can have a shark diving experience they'll never forget.
When I'm not working with sharks I am a technical diving instructor with a passion for cave diving and exploration. A NSS-CDS cave diving instructor since 2000, I dive, guide and explore caves around the Bahamas, primarily on Grand Bahama. In December 2012 I was the first to connect a land-based cave with an open-ocean blue hole.
I'm also currently working to come a PADI Course Director. I am a firm believer in the power of education. As I manage or host various nonprofit programs for youth education I have my own dream, and that's to create an academy of diving that will eventually open its doors to those who merit it but cannot afford it.
My primary inspiration came from my dad. He was a serious military diver in the '50s, using pure O2 Rebreathers and other cool gear. Looking at his black and white photos made me want to become a diver too. As a child, my dream was to become an underwater "scuba ranger." I wanted to be a guardian of the reefs and the oceans, but mostly I wanted a job that allowed me to stay in the water all day long. Growing up I always had a pair of fins, mask and snorkel at the ready, and I spent endless hours in the water; it didn't matter whether it was an ocean, a lake or a river. Then I grew up and took my first dive on scuba. After that, making the decision to live the diving life was easy. That was nearly 21 years ago and I've never looked back.
Diving means life. It is my medicine, my peace of mind, my passion, my pastime. Diving has not only enabled me to become one with the ocean, it has taught me the value and the power of "now," to live in the moment, enjoying what is happening now, not regretting the past or worrying about what comes next. The ocean's animals have also taught me a lot; in particular, acceptance and understanding. And diving has allowed me to meet many different people and form lasting friendships. Finally, diving has provided me with a way to give back to this planet, through education and conservation.
There have been so many, it's difficult to chose. I have twenty years worth of daily experiences being out on boats, teaching, diving, exploring, discovering, marveling. The past twenty years come
back to me in small memory flashes - swimming with my best friend during a night dive to check on an octopus guarding her eggs, only to arrive at the exact moment she was blowing her little hatchlings into the darkness - finding a sea spider before it was even listed in an identification book - looking up with my first sleeping shark nestled in my lap and seeing UNEXSO legend Ben Rose (Uncle Ben to me) looking down on me and smiling - filming a new wreck on its descent to the bottom of the ocean - laying lines through caves and tunnels that had never felt a human presence - breath-hold diving and dancing with mantas - finding my first cave fossils - watching a rainbow on a sandy bottom on a perfectly clear day - remembering my first breath underwater and realizing that I had finally found my place in the world.
For me the oceans are like women, the givers of life, nurturing and loving, calm and languid one moment, angry and raging the next, but always beautiful. Oceans can also be very vulnerable to our presence and our use, so we need to protect them and the animals that live in them.
What has always made me very proud has been seeing the change in people's eyes upon discovering the beauty of the ocean, realizing the true nature of sharks, and learning about all the incredible details of our underwater world. But I am even more proud when I see young girls I once taught become dive professionals, carrying the torch forward. Many of them are now diving instructors and technical divers, and they each hold a little piece of me, and my love for the ocean, to share with others.
I would tell them to "prepare to be amazed." I would also recommend they really realize the value of what they are receiving, as an experience and as a professional service.
Entering the ocean is like exploring faraway galaxies that are right here within our reach yet are more beautiful and rich with life than we can ever imagine. Diving opens eyes and hearts, and creates new ambassadors for the conservation of the oceans and their habitants.
My Jet Fins and my frameless mask have been with me for the last twenty years, and they are still the perfect choices for any gear configuration and dive environment I happen to find myself in. Then there are my numerous regulators, all SCUBAPRO, to suit the different kinds of diving I do: recreational diving, side-mount, stage, decompression, cold or warm water.
I love SCUBAPRO gear because it is sturdy, reliable and versatile. I call it "instructor proof" gear, meaning that if an instructor like me, who's always in the water, can use it day after day, year after year, and it still remains strong and functional, then a recreational diver can rest assured that he or she is purchasing a product that will last a lifetime.