• • • Cristina Zenato— initiator of the movement that resulted in the full protection of sharks in the Bahamas, Cristina is at the forefront of being a voice for these wonderful creatures. We had the opportunity to talk with her about how her connection to the ocean began and the importance of protecting it for generations to come.

Hi Cristina! You’re a Shark professional and behaviourist who appears to have a special connection with these amazing creatures. I’d love to know what drew you to focus your diving career on shark conservation and the role it has had in shaping your relationship and interaction with the ocean.

Sharks have always fascinated me with their perfect beauty. It was my childhood dream to have sharks for friends that I could swim with every day.

I come from a family of the ocean who taught me that sharks are animals to love and respect like any other animal I encounter in the water. I never feared sharks and that might have helped me in my desire to meet sharks.

As I started to learn about them I realized they needed support because they are so vulnerable to our presence but they are also the victim of our unjustified fear as well.

If you match that with what I was taught at a very young age growing up in central Africa, that every animal has a vital role in the chain of nature, it is very easy to make the connection between ocean, sharks and the desire to protect both and become their ambassador.

The ocean for me has always been a friendly and great place, a place to understand and respect, not a place to fear or to dominate. I believe the passion for sharks didn’t shape my love for the ocean, but that each one was in me and they both developed as I grew into their arms.

I love everything and anything water. Water flows through every aspect of our lives, following that flow makes us realize that everything is so vitally interconnected. That realization expanded my desire to protect not only oceans, sharks and other creatures, but brought me to caves and their exploration.

My goal is to show that our actions have reactions sometimes so far away from us, we are not even aware of the complex links. If I had to describe how my relationship is with the ocean and water, it would look like the expanding rings from a stone thrown into the water.

What would you say is the biggest transition you’ve had in yourself as a woman through the extensive work you’ve done?

Through my different choices and line of work, I realized that women endure a lot of pressure to fill in so many different roles in their lifetime and that they are required to fill them in with flawless delivery. We are expected to be growing in our careers, to be mothers and to balance personal life, taking care of ourselves, and never drop any of these fragile systems we are handed.

If our choices deviate from what it’s expected of us (I call it the society’s murmur which follows us from birth), we are then judged within those parameters. We are at times our worst enemy and expect that from ourselves.

What I learned is that these murmurs are not valid. Our value is within ourselves, our happiness and our personal sense of accomplishment and I do not need to fit into a specific box or definition. I can cross over many and still be a complete human being.

My body does not define me, but my actions do. My age does not define me, but my energy and spirit do. My choices do not define me, but instead my passion and love for trying to make this world, our world, a better place will.

We need to go back to a more grounded relationship with this planet...

Sustainability for Our Oceans

You’ve documented beach cleanups on your Instagram and encouraged people to not purchase single-use plastics, what do you think is the biggest challenge faced in encouraging people to switch to more sustainable options? And what tips would you give for people wanting to transition to being more sustainable?

We have several challenges to contend with. The biggest one, in my opinion, is production.

We are unfortunately living in a world that produces and packages almost everything in plastic, at quantity beyond what I even remember from just twenty years ago.

Changing production is going to require a massive effort and also a realization that if we don’t change we won’t make it. It will have to come from the consumers, we have that power, but it will have to be addressed at legislation level and at the hardest of the core issues: financial gain versus better life for this planet and for us.

The other major challenge is demand. We live in a world going at a faster pace, requiring immediate gratification with less effort. We have grown comfortable and lazy. We need our coffee to go, our meals to be delivered and our water to be always readily available.

We sit at home, clicking away on a keyboard to have everything we think of, desire, need and wish to be shipped to us at the fastest rate possible that we are simply fueling further into the production issues. We are a throw-away society, the issue is that “away” doesn’t really exist. When we throw something away, it just goes somewhere else, it doesn’t just go away.

To help we can start by making small changes. By changing our ways, we can influence the way production is conducted and hopefully, with time, move back to more sustainable methods. We need to go back to a more grounded relationship with this planet. These are some of the things I have changed and I have the additional challenge of living on an island, so a lot of things come imported.

I always keep a mug inside my desk and when coffee is brewed I use that same mug. I carry my own water bottle everywhere, we use water fountains for everyone to drink and refill from. I never take coffee or food to go.

If I am travelling, I walk through the airport looking for a restaurant serving food in real dishes and with real cutlery. I use canvas bags to go shopping, pick products that are not wrapped in plastic and simply put them in my basket without any other wrapping. I also produce my own toothpaste and use bars for soap and shampoo.

Recently, I have also discovered companies creating hair, body and hygiene products with minimal to no plastic production and I have changed to those. For me being environmentally friendly it’s not an action or a series of action but a conscientious change in the way we live our lives.

Other things we can do is in the way we manage our homes. I take short showers to preserve water, use cleaning items I can wash and reuse rather than cloths or paper that have a one time use, I do not use poisons, I prefer to fight “pests” with other creatures. I have a good population of geckos and lizards walking in and out of the apt, eating ants and possibly other critters, I love having birds all over the area for they are insect eaters. Taking a step back and watching nature doing her thing will help us a lot to return to use her example and reduce our footprint.

Could you tell me about People of the Water (POW) and what projects you are currently working on?

People of the Water is the realization of a concept I have had in my mind for a very long time, although in a different form and with a different name. This is my first step towards the realization of that concept.

The Exploration-Education-Conservation motto I identify with, explains the exact process I believe in. I have dedicated a large part of my time and personal finances in the exploration of our world, on many different levels, from sharks to caves, to oceans, and used that to further my education so I could share the acquired knowledge through education of others.

That is the only way we can arrive at Conservation, by understanding more of what we love we can also do more to protect it. People of the Water is the expansion of those three concepts and I am hoping to be able to support a wider work in all three fields, allowing me more time to explore so I can continue to educate and promote conservation.

The current most pressing project is the protection of a cave system that could be damaged by the development of the land near and over it.

To promote its conservation, I needed to first locate the cave in relationship to the land it’s under, so I spent every free day or hours after work, at night, to survey this system, completing 22,000ft of the survey between the end of February and the beginning of June. I am on the second phase of this project, collecting information on the flora and fauna above and below the waterline.

Next project this year is to train a local Bahamian scientist as a cave diver to show her what’s really beneath our feet and make her the ambassador for these fragile eco-systems that require protection.

In the Bahamas and other places in the world, Caves are freshwater reservoirs on top of saltwater coming from the oceans and are connected to the health of many other ecosystems, including mangroves, used by a lot of creatures, including sharks.

If we pollute the land over the cave miles and miles away, polluted water will travel and transport those agents everywhere where it will be able to reach, having catastrophic consequences for everyone involved.

Looking at the future and beyond

What is your most valuable piece of advice for young women who may be afraid of sharks and the deep ocean but want to overcome this?

I believe we are scared more of what we do not know or understand, so I always recommend to acquire more knowledge and if possible, direct experience.

In a world of easily reachable information, a lot of it is unfortunately filtered and hyped up by the need of creating drama, attention, ratings and clouding a more appropriate and truthful delivery.

My suggestion is to contact those people and really working with sharks, learn about sharks and the oceans, venture as far as taking a snorkel lesson or trip and connect with ocean lovers and passionate advocate for it.

In them, in us, they will find the truth and reality of things. Knowledge is indeed power.

What is next on the horizon for you?

A lot of the same, as that is what I really love to do and it fuels my passion. Sharks and caves will continue to occupy a lot of my time and dedication, together with the educational and outreach programs.

The closest project is to continue the development and expansion of the nonprofit.

My ultimate goal is to be able to expand more the educational side and being able to offer additional internships and professional educational programs beyond what I offer now to those who cannot afford them, with a specific focus on the local economy of where I am located.

At the same time, I am working on my book. I have decided on the storyline and the format it’s going to have. So among the diving, teaching, sharks, cave exploration, expeditions, I will carve out a little extra time for finishing this project I have had on the back of my mind for a very long time and that is requiring for me to give it life.

• • • The dedication and passion that Cristina projects are amazing. The continuous work she does for those in and out of the water is admirable and we will definitely be reading her book once it’s released!

July 18, 2019 — Janaya Wilkins