Super Hero: Cristina Zenato, A Guardian Of The Ocean
By Raegan Scharfetter
Cristina Zenato speaks five languages. Some say the sixth one is Shark.
The 48-year-old cave diving instructor and explorer grew up in the African rainforest where she developed a passion for the oceans.
“It was a childhood dream of mine to be a guardian of the ocean,” Zenato said. “All I wanted to do was be a person who would protect it from the actions of humans, so almost like a forest ranger but I imagined myself in scuba gear.”
Over 25 years ago, she made the move to the Bahamas to learn how to scuba dive. Now, Zenato works as a PADI course director, a NSS-CDS advanced cave diving instructor, a TDI technical instructor and specializes in shark diving and behavior — a line of work that she’s never feared.
“I’ve never been afraid of sharks. I was lucky enough to have an upbringing in a family that always told me sharks are fish, so they’re animals and as animals they will function as animals,” she explained. “They’re not monsters, they’re not nerve-ending jaws, they’re not killing machines.”
Zenato’s Message To Children
Understanding her fortunate introduction to wildlife, Zenato encourages children who have a similar dream to learn about the ocean — regardless of where they are or how old they are.
“Never feel like you’re too young or too small…Understand that you can throw one stone into the water but it makes a lot of ripples,” she said.
Zenato continued to say as individuals, we all have an impact on our surroundings.
“I want them to feel empowered within themselves to be a voice and to not accept anyone telling them they can’t do this,” she said.
‘Women Don’t Become Divers’
Being a woman in a male-dominated field, Zenato says she has to take 10 steps more to prove herself.
“I felt that as a woman, I always had to do a little bit more, work a little bit harder and jump a little bit higher. And yet when I achieved something, I was also retorted that ‘Well, yes, you received this because you’re a woman.’ It was never the recognition of someone saying, ‘Wow! You received this because you deserved it and you did really well.’” she said. “I had to fight through that.”
Zenato shared that people would applaud her when she would dock a boat, but if one of her male counterparts brought in the boat, they would be quietly thanked as per usual.
Currently, Zenato is an active member of the Women Divers Hall of Fame and says women like first female scuba instructor, Dottie Frazier, pushed boundaries for her and many others.
Although she’s had her hardships, Zenato said she is starting to see some positive change.
“One of the things I’m seeing in my 26-year career is that there are more voices for women and more opportunities for women,” she said. “That is an amazing step.” Be sure to support this amazing nonprofit People of the Water.
So, Why Sharks?
Unlike humans, Zenato finds sharks to be one of the easiest animals to understand and be with.
“They’re so direct and I’m a direct person, so I’m very comfortable with them,” she explained.
In fact, one of her favorite moments is when sharks display that same comfortability by coming to her, resting in her lap and letting her know that they’re comfortable.
“I’m happy and relaxed and in absolute awe every time they surprise me,” Zenato said. “They have not one bad bone in their body.”
However, she iterates that she always has an understanding of what species she’s diving with.
“If I’m swimming along the reef and there’s a nurse shark, I’ll just glide by and we’ll both go our ways. If I decide to go dive with tiger sharks, I’ll have to have a different level of attention. But it’s not out of fear, it’s just being attentive,” she explained. “It is their world — not mine.”
Through her work, Zenato helps sharks by removing hooks from their mouths. She also helps scientists collect data to support research. And she was the initiator of the movement that resulted in the full protection of sharks in the Bahamas.
How We Can Help
When it comes to diving, Zenato paints a descriptive picture.
“There is a moment when I’m down there, where I basically don’t do anything but float still, and I just watch this amazing miracle that is surrounding me. How the sharks swim with the fish, the shadows cast over the sand, and the yellowtails milling around…I think that moment is my favorite,” she said.
As the founder of the nonprofit People of the Water, Zenato works to widen the conduction of training, education, and research relating to environmental issues.
“Without the oceans, we wouldn’t be here. We need the oceans to continuously be here. We need to help the oceans to have a healthy planet,” she said. “I think we should care about our ecosystems because the abundance of life that’s in the ocean is one of the most amazing things you can ever witness in your life. We absolutely depend on it — physically and economically.”
You don’t need to go unhook a shark to help — Zenato advises people to just pay attention to their consumerism, reduce plastic pollution, and their carbon footprint. And that doesn’t mean making drastic changes, either. Rather, Zenato recommends working on changing a singular habit every year like not drinking coffee out of plastic cups or controlling how much water or electricity we use, or even donating to organizations like The Bahamas National Trust, the Women Divers Hall of Fame, and the American Shark Conservancy.
How is Ocean Blue Group Helping Protect Sharks?
Ocean Blue Project is working with hundreds of small groups to clean up neighborhoods, rivers and beaches, and is organized around four main programs:
Microplastics Recovery — removal of plastics and other debris from beaches in partnership with university researchers and upcycling manufacturers.
Create a Cleanup — empowering individuals, schools and businesses to develop local cleanup events around the United States.
Blue Streams & Rivers — Preventing ocean pollution through riparian ecosystem enhancement projects that allow local flora and fauna to thrive while addressing pollution at its source, our urban streams and rivers.
Blue Schools — grade-school curriculum to help students become stewards of their local watershed integrating urban stream/river restoration by River Restoration Projects, planting native trees and vegetation.
To create or join a beach cleanup near you, click here. If unable to participate in a cleanup, you can still become an annual grassroots member or create a fundraiser through OBP’s Facebook page.
Raegan Scharfetter is a journalist based out of Dallas-Fort Worth with a passion for wildlife and environmental science.
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