Cristina Zenato – Turning Childhood Dreams Into a Career In Diving

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Cristina Zenato with some of her best friends. Photo credit: Amanda Cotton

Cristina Zenato with some of her best friends. Photo credit: Amanda Cotton

PADI has interviewed several amazing women so far as part of the “Women in Diving” series, and one thing is certain – they all share a strong passion and sense of purpose in exploring and protecting the ocean.

Cristina Zenato exemplifies this spirit, turning childhood dreams into a career in diving as a shark expert and PADI Course Director. Cristina’s contributions to the sport have been significant, earning her memberships in the Women Divers Hall of Fame, Explorers Club, and Ocean Artists Society.  Cristina developed the PADI Caribbean Reef Shark Awareness Distinctive Specialty and started a campaign that resulted in the complete protection for all shark species in the Bahamas.

Cristina took a moment to share her path from becoming a Cave Diving Instructor to Course Director with PADI.

 

What originally got you into diving and teaching others about scuba and sharks? How did getting your PADI certification impact your life and career?

Cristina Zenato in the open ocean. Photo credit: Arek Pers

Cristina Zenato in the open ocean. Photo credit: Arek Pers

My love of the ocean originated with my family. I grew up with a mask, snorkel, and fins and enjoyed endless hours in the water during my childhood. My childhood dream was to become an underwater scuba ranger. In my mind, I would become the guardian of the ocean who could stay in the water all day, which at the time mom didn’t allow me to do, and roam free through the reef showing people special places and ensuring that they took care of the environment. In my fantasy world, sharks and eels were my friends, and I would spend most of my time in the water with them. I never thought that my childhood dreams would come true.

Later, I studied languages and tourism and had the opportunity to travel to the Bahamas to take my first scuba course. I became a PADI Open Water Diver and never left, using my language skills to find a job that allowed me to dive every day. In just a year, I became a PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor and changed my career path. PADI has been instrumental and supportive in my scuba and teaching career. Teaching is my passion, especially when it involves scuba diving, sharks, caves and conservation. This year, I celebrate 20 years being a PADI Instructor, and I hope to commemorate it by obtaining my PADI Course Director designation in June.

Among other accomplishments, you were the first woman to connect a land cave with an ocean blue hole. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience and discovery?

Cristina exploring a cave. Photo credit: Stephen Frink

Cristina exploring a cave. Photo credit: Stephen Frink

I call it the “connection that didn’t exist.” I was volunteering my time mapping a well-known and vital system on the island, Ben’s cave system in the Lucayan National Park, in order to expand the boundaries of the park and to protect the land over cave from development. One of the most amazing aspects of the Bahamas is that we have this flat land with no mountains, rivers, lakes, or glaciers and yet possess some of the cleanest and freshest water in the world. The caves are the key to this immense fortune, this “Bahamian Gold” as I call it. I set out to explore and map a cave called Mermaid Pond, in the west side of the island, fed by a water table coming from the industrial area. In line with this cave, 500 feet away on the beach, there was another cave entrance, what the locals call Blue Hole, or Chimney. Many others had tried but determined that the caves did not connect.

The caves spoke differently to me. The way the water and the sediments moved told me a different story, so I started investigating it. After numerous setbacks and challenges, I found a squeeze-through passage near what looked like a flat wall with more cave behind it. I returned on 31 December 2012 with a former student, and we successfully swam together from the ocean hole to the land hole and back. In total, it took three hours and 4,026 feet (1,227 meters) to traverse!

There is a special feeling about being where nobody else has ever been before. It is a sense of anticipation and discovery. It allows you to think outside the boundaries and investigate. There is beauty, peace and wonder.  I explore a lot in the Bahamas I have this wonderful opportunity to roam uncharted territories, but this experience will forever be with me. It is a cave that many others gave up on, which made it even more special for me when I was finally able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Over your career, you’ve likely encountered thousands of different sharks and had a front row seat to really study their behavior. What have you learned that people might not know or appreciate about sharks?

Sharks have amazing and unique personalities. Each is different with its own preferences, fears and habits. In addition, they have a level of communication among themselves that we do not yet fully understand. Based on their behavior, I do believe they recognize and associate things and transfer learnings among themselves. I also think that sharks are incredibly shy and vulnerable creatures, traits which we don’t normally associate with sharks

I find there is a general difference between the way women and men approach diving, specifically with sharks. I find women more cautious towards the sport and sharks in particular; however, they are willing to try and discover more. Through the specialized shark course I teach, I welcome a unique kind of clientele.  Women taking this course are, in general, more in tune with the animals. They come in with a desire to learn, connect and discover. They are less task-oriented and more experience-based and usually come out of the course with a renewed love and understanding for the animals.

Cristina with a swarm of sharks. Photo credit: Mike Kazma

Cristina with a swarm of sharks. Photo credit: Mike Kazma

Can you discuss your KORU project, started with friend and fellow Women Divers Hall of Fame member Amanda Cotton? How did this come about and what do you hope it communicates to the world?

Photo of Cristina Zenato, as part of the KORU project. Photo credit: Amanda Cotton

Photo of Cristina Zenato, as part of the KORU project. Photo credit: Amanda Cotton

It all started with Amanda taking pictures of me diving with my babies (sharks) and in caves on Grand Bahama. We quickly realized there was more to the story than just the relationship between the photographer and the diver. That was one layer of our story, but we wanted to share more and peel off the layers people could not see or could not understand. We wanted to showcase our emotional connection, as women of water, and to emphasize the feminine spirit and the connection with water that all women have, plus the need to protect and nurture both. During this journey I talked about my story, my emotions, my great moments, my terrible moments and Amanda captured them through her lens. We wanted the images to speak our voices and yet leave space for others to hear their own voices. In the end we wanted people, not only women, to connect with the feminine spirit and the preciousness of water and the fact that protecting both is a fundamental link to life.

Any plans for PADI Women’s Dive Day on July 18, 2015? Will you be offering or participating in any female-friendly dives on this day?

As soon as I heard about the idea I loved it. For July 18th, I am planning two different activities to target both women divers and the non-divers.

In connection with my love for sharks, I will schedule a special shark dive for certified women divers. I will also open a special Discover Scuba® Diving day for women only, to give them the opportunity to try scuba diving. An all-women crew will run both activities because I do believe it is very inspiring and empowering to see women cover all the roles from driving the boat to taking video and pictures, managing the divers, teaching and handling sharks. Through the years, I have trained and supported countless women and young ladies, and I am very proud to see them not only work and dive the oceans as professionals but also teach and inspire the next generation of women divers.

Just another day on the job for Cristina Zenato. Photo credit: Amanda Cotton

Just another day on the job for Cristina Zenato. Photo credit: Amanda Cotton

To the women who want to become professionals in scuba diving I can only say, “Do it.” There are many forms of professional expression in scuba diving to choose from – recreational, technical, commercial, medical, military, artistic, conservation, etc. My first recommendation is to follow your heart and your passion, and my second is to acquire knowledge and experience. Continue to grow as a diver and traveler and share it with others, and don’t listen to those who say, “You can’t do that”.

To learn more about Cristina Zenato and her work, please check out www.CristinaZenato.com.