Cristina Zenato UNEXSO Diving Supervisor & Member of the Women Diver’s Hall of Fame
Born in Italy, Cristina Zenato, 39, started swimming and snorkeling at age 2 and scuba diving at 22. Her fascination with scuba began at age 8, influenced by her dad, who was in the military and a member of the Special Forces dive team. After learning how to dive in the Bahamas and then becoming a Scuba instructor, now 16 years later she has climbed the ranks to become the head of diving at the Underwater Explorers Society (UNEXSO). Over her career, Cristina has worked on several shark related films, documentaries and news stories—ABC, BBC Nature, BBC Science, CNN, Discovery Channel Shark Week, National Geographic, and Sea Wolf—and was most recently profiled as the “Shark Whisperer” on Inside Edition. She is also the latest member of the Women Divers Hall of Fame, a prestigious group of elite women divers, recognized for their pioneering and unique skills in the scuba diving community and global oceanic conservation efforts.
Where did do you grow up? In the middle of the Congo Africa rain forest until age 15.
What languages do you speak? I speak five languages—Italian, English, German, French and Spanish.
What are your diving qualifications? UNEXSO Shark Feeder Trainer, NSS-CDS Full Cave Instructor, TDI Cavern, Intro and Cave Instructor, TDI Advanced Nitrox, Decompression Procedures and Extended Range Instructor, TDI Advanced Wreck Instructor, PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer, NAUI Open Water, Scuba Instructor, SSI Rescue Instructor.
In your role as Dive Team Manager at UNEXSO, what are your responsibilities? I manage the day to day operations of the diving department, including coordinating requests, reservations and schedules, plus monitoring five boats and ten crew members. This includes teaching and training, and filling in where necessary.
What diving specialties are you best known for? Internationally I’m known best for my interaction with Caribbean Reef sharks and my ability to induce a “status mitigo” or tonic immobility in the animals, which is achieved by stroking the sharks after they initiate the interaction during a dive. There is a similar natural behavior in sharks while in high stress situations or imminent threat; the difference is that this relaxed state happens when the sharks are calm and relaxed and they initiate the interaction. Through this behavior, learned from Ben Rose, I have been able to show people a different side of sharks
Tell us about your community involvement. I work closely with the Bahamas National Trust, and have been involved in a conservation alliance to redraw the map of Ben’s Cave and other uncharted caves on Grand Bahama, for the purpose of helping protect these delicate cave systems and important reservoirs of the Bahamas fresh water supply. Additionally, I’ve worked with the Bahamas Internship Program, Environmental Moorings Project and Artificial Reef Program. I also manage and monitor school programs that have been designed to educate our Bahamian children on shark conservation.
What is your favorite dive site in the Bahamas and the world? This is a difficult question to answer! I love to dive and dive for fun even on my days off. If I had to choose, my favorite tech dive in the Bahamas is Ben’s Cave. It’s a magical world straight out of The Lord of the Rings. For recreation, no doubt about it—diving with my sharks! If I had to pick outside of the Bahamas, it would be Fiji for fish life, sharks and reef; and the St. Lawrence River for wrecks and tech diving.
Who has been your biggest inspiration as a diver? First, my dad. As an ex-military diver, pictures of him and his adventures were always around the house. He taught me to swim and we spent every free moment we could in the water. My other mentor is Ben Rose, a self-taught marine biologist, the person who realized what was happening to the sharks with our touch. He is also the first person to dive Ben’s Cavern. But Ben is much more—he is a gentle man, a keen observer, and holds profound insight into the behaviors and creatures of the ocean. He understands and loves the Bahamian landscapes as much as he loves and understands the underwater world of the Bahamas. He is the person I still call when I have a question.
Editor’s Note: There are currently one hundred and forty-six members in the Women Divers Hall of Fame (WDHOF), hailing from twenty-nine U.S. States and territories and eleven countries worldwide. WDHOF inductees are nominated and selected on an annual basis.