Diving Deep with Explorer and Conservationist Cristina Zenato - 30A

Diving Deep with Explorer and Conservationist Cristina Zenato

By: Susan Gunn | Posted Feb 26, 2023

According to science, Planet Earth is estimated to be roughly 4.5 billion years old. It is also the only planet known to provide the perfect blend of atmospheric gases, temperature, light, and water needed to sustain life. One would hope that all humans would strive to protect this big blue marble we call home. The planet has waxed and waned throughout the ages until the present day in its struggle to survive. Along the way, there have been pioneers, explorers, educators, and conservationists who have dedicated their lives to help keep our planet healthy. It is easy to say one person cannot make a difference in this effort, especially if removed from the collective, but it is not necessarily true. If you think all the great explorers and passionate conservationists have disappeared, you need to learn about an incredible and inspirational woman named Cristina Zenato.

Cristina’s story began when she was born the only child to father Zenato Cesare and his wife Zanna in the northeast part of Italy near Verona. She spent most of her childhood and teenage years living in former Zaire, and then in the Mayombe Forest in the Congo. Her father, who passed away in 2019, was a military diver whose old dive images sparked Cristina’s curiosity about the sea and what lay within. Her mother still lives in Lazise, Italy, on Garda Lake. Cristina recalls summer visits to her grandmother and great-aunt and says these three women were her pillars and examples of what women should be. She credits both her parents for her phenomenal work ethic but says she inherited her energy, temper, and tenacity from her dad. All these things have molded her into the tireless modern-day explorer, conservationist, and protector she has become. Cristina has an inherent respect for our planet and the animal kingdom.

Credit: Kewin Lorenzen

“My love for animals comes from growing up in Africa where I was taught about sharing their space, being aware and respectful of their presence, and possible dangers, but not eliminating everything around us just to make something ‘safe.’ I grew up understanding that animals are essential to our survival. They are part of our world, and our presence makes it difficult for them to survive as they used to. I have a love for the underdog.”

Among her biggest passions are sharks. She met them in their element on her first open-water dive in 1994, and it has been a love affair ever since. Verona is known as the city of Romeo and Juliet, so it’s no wonder she inherited such passion from her birthplace. Zenato has grown her love of sharks, our planet, and its animals into a life career with a work ethic that simply stuns.

She has been a professional diver for nearly thirty years, and to date, she has logged over 20,000 dives.

If her name sounds familiar, you may have seen her in countless newspapers and magazine articles, or during her involvement in one or more of her television appearances or documentaries through the years on various networks such as The Discovery Channel, National Geographic, BBC Science, BBC Travel, and many more. If you ask Zenato a question about sharks, chances are she’ll have the right answer and can respond in one of six languages she speaks fluently, including American Sign Language. After finishing her undergraduate degree and living in Southern France and Germany, at age twenty-two, Cristina moved to Grand Bahama Island where she still works and resides today. It might be fair to say she spends more time in the water with her beloved sharks than she does on land.

Credit: Lucie Drlikova

“My interest in sharks comes from childhood. My love for sharks comes from the first time I saw them diving. My desire for and involvement in conservation would come a few years later, once I realized that most people didn’t feel the same as I did about sharks.”

For years, she has donned her chainmail suits and dived to depths with students and people from all walks to share the magnificent underwater world where she spends most of her time. The shark’s plight is an abhorrent one.

According to National Geographic and AmericanOceans.org, an estimated 100 million sharks are killed each year, either as a direct or indirect result of improper contact with humans.

This is a staggering number, and one far greater than any capable recovery rate for these populations. Cristina has dedicated her life to educating the human population about the wrongful vilification of sharks.

Shark hooks removed by Cristina

“My dad always taught me there are no monsters in the sea, only the ones we make up in our heads. I have always had a healthy and educated relationship with the water and the creatures living in it. The most dangerous part of the ocean is the water itself, not the animals.”

In 2009, she started campaigning to protect sharks with a 25,000-signature petition. By continuing her narrative about conservation, making a stand for sharks, and using her images and education, she realized her power to make a real difference. Cristina was the person to initiate the movement to protect sharks in the Bahamas, and this culminated in 2011 when the country declared its waters a protected shark sanctuary. She was also inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame the same year, which allows her to support mentorship programs for other female divers. To see Cristina interact with “her babies,” as she lovingly refers to them, is to witness something extraordinary. Through the years, the sharks have come to know and understand her as friend, not foe. Circling gracefully in great numbers over her head, they each wait their turn until one by one, they gently glide to a resting spot as she kneels on the sand to receive them under her hands. It is there they accept her loving strokes, gentle embraces, and even her shark kisses. Her relationship with sharks goes beyond the well-known calming technique of rubbing the electroreceptors on their snouts called the Ampullae of Lorenzini. These animals have learned to trust Cristina so much that they not only allow her this intimate time, but they seek her out and position themselves so that she can use her own hands to remove a seemingly endless number of hooks and lines left in their mouths from encounters with fishermen. She wants people to know these creatures are not the monsters they have been made out to be, and that each shark is an intelligent individual with a unique personality. It is important to her that people understand she has many years of education and experience that enable her to know how to safely interact with them as a shark expert, and she does not encourage interacting with sharks without the presence of a properly trained professional for educational and conservation purposes.

With Kewin after exploring a remote cave

With Kewin after exploring a remote caveZenato has met a few other loves along her journey. In her years of shark diving, she has befriended other sea life. Two goliath groupers, one she called Peanut and another known as Secret Agent, became like loyal dogs awaiting her arrival each day. But it was another diver, Kewin (pronounced Kevin) Lorenzen, who stole her heart. They met in early 2018 and married in February 2020. Together they endured Hurricane Dorian and the COVID pandemic.

“Our first official date was January 31. It was a full, blue, super moon night, and we have been together ever since. We cave dive together, we shark dive together, we are a very balanced team.”

Zenato’s path to cave diving came early in her career and has been bittersweet. On her eleventh logged dive, she was guided into a cavern by a man named Ben Rose, who would become a mentor, an inspiration, and a friend. It was this dive that sparked her interest in underwater cave exploration, and she began the technically advanced training to prepare herself for these extreme underwater journeys. Sadly, she lost her friend Ben when he, his wife, and their four rescue dogs were lost in a tragic house fire. Cristina carried on and continued the grueling work involved in becoming an elite cave diving instructor. In addition to her PADI course director certificate, which enables her to train instructors in up to twenty different specialties, she also holds an advanced cave diving instructor certification from the National Speleological Society Cave Diving Section. These are just two of the many highest-level certifications she has earned in her field, which also include search and recovery, emergency first responder, and hyperbaric specialist.

Cristina surfacing from a cave dive. Credit: Alex Rose

“Cave diving is a big part of my passion, work, and dedication to conservation. From learning to cave dive to understanding their role in the survival of entire eco-systems to promoting their exploration, mapping, and conservation, the step was not too big.”

Within two years of becoming a cave diver, she became involved with the Bahamas National Trust and helped them gather information and data to propose marine protected areas or MPAs. Cave diving is not for the faint of heart, and while Zenato also does this for recreation, make no mistake, she is a courageous true modern-day explorer and pioneer. In 2015 and 2016 on Sweetings Cay, she continued her exploration of the underwater Zodiac Cave system. Her venture resulted in the joining of the caves Gemini to Aquarius, and the joining of caves Mermaid Pond in Hawksbill Creek to Chimney, the latter being a first of its kind as she swam from inland to the open ocean through the cave. She also extended caves Pisces and Virgo. In 2020, after the usual arduous long-distance hike through dense tropical underbrush with heavy gear, Cristina and her husband Kewin discovered two completely new and uncharted caves they named Niflheim and Svartalfheim. These systems have now been mapped and continue to be explored by the couple.

In 2019, Cristina founded People of the Water, an organization she personally funded, dedicated to expanding the outreach of the exploration and conservation of both caves and shark-related issues. She directly cooperates with and supports the Museum of Antiquities and is a member of The Explorers Club. She is an accomplished writer and naturalist, having achieved many awards for her work. When she’s not underwater, Cristina stays busy with online presentations and direct talks with schools and universities, dive clubs, women’s programs, and writing blogs and articles. She is surrounded by the love she gives in the form of her three rescue dogs: Mack, rescued off the beach in 2016; Blue, rescued in 2016 after Hurricane Matthew; and Tino, rescued off the beach after Cristina lost her beloved dog Mia in 2020 during the height of the COVID lockdown. She and Kewin have recently indulged their artistic sides, creating unique and beautiful underwater images to match Kewin’s musical compositions. In the rare downtime this phenom takes, she walks with Kewin and their pups along the beautiful beaches where they live, always carrying a bag for any trash they might find on the path back home.

“I am a firm believer in the power of one. I imagine my work being like a stone cast in the water, creating a ripple effect. My hope is to become a bigger and bigger stone. I believe change comes through knowledge and understanding, and I live by the quote, ‘In the end, we conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand what we are taught’ (Baba Bioum, 1968). I see my role as a teacher so that we may understand more and fear less.”

To learn more about Cristina Zenato, visit her website or follow her on Instagram

Susan Gunn is a retired paramedic and freelance photographer/writer living in Santa Rosa Beach. When she is not working, she can be found in the water or exploring the beauty of Florida.