Diving with Cristina Zenato
Every so often during this scholarship year I experience something extraordinary, something I know will stay with me forever. Without doubt, one of the most poignant experiences of my year so far has been spending a week with an individual who can easily be described as a credit to the diving industry. Diving alongside a lady who is one of the most distinguished and assiduous individuals within diving was incredible. With sharks galore, exquisite caverns, and a great dive buddy I had an unforgettable week.
Cristina Zenato has lived and worked in the Bahamas for 17 years. During this time Cristina has built up an extremely admirable dive career through sheer hard work and passion. Well recognised as a shark diver, Cristina’s career and interests stretch far beyond these sleek creatures. She is one of only two cave diving instructors to be found in the Bahamas; is a keen and influential conservationist; and holds instructor ratings with PADI, NAUI, SSI and SDI to name but a few! Cristina can also speak five different languages and her yoga talents are astonishing. Upon joining Cristina for one of her yoga classes I was to discover I also had astonishing yoga talents. Astonishing for all the wrong reasons. As Cristina balanced on one arm, her entire body in the air – no joke – I looked like a bewildered eejit (Scottish word for fool).
With all Cristina’s talents – plus the fact that she is making a very prominent mark within the diving industry, as well as the wider underwater industries – it is no surprise that this year saw her inaugurated into the Women Divers Hall of Fame. Having the chance to join Cristina for a week was a special opportunity. I was rather nervous upon arrival – star struck you might say. However, as my week progressed I discovered Cristina is one of the most humble, genuine and supportive people I have ever met. As a young female in the process of being expressly launched into the hub of the diving industry I can think of no better mentor than Cristina.
Cristina was keen to show me as much as possible during my week on Grand Bahama. As the Dive Team Manager at UNEXSO dive center, based in Freeport, Cristina ensured I was able to fill my dive log with awesome dives. Joining the daily dive trips, personal shark feeding dives and completing a cavern course (and don’t forget the two extreme yoga classes!) all made for an action packed week in the Bahamas.
Being back in the Bahamas was great. In 2007 I spent five months here and during this time I became enthralled by diving and realised it was going to play a significant part in my life. Upon returning to this jovial island nation the familiarity of the reefs; the breezy conifer lined beaches; the taste of conch fritters and the sound of the local music all evoked great memories. Having dived in many different places since 2007, the Bahamas has remained my favourite reef destination. I never knew if this was because it’s where I first discovered diving: perhaps it was just the novelty factor and awe associated with my first reef dives making me recall them so admiringly?
No way. Descending for some camera practice I was immediately greeted by healthy sized groupers and snappers patrolling the reef, while endless gorgonian sea fans extended their wide grasp across the collage of soft and hard corals. Vibrant blue chromis decorated the coral heads in their orgaised schools while the bold Damselfish defended their algae gardens with their characteristic vigour. Eels were to be found meandering their garish heads from their lairs and the squirrelfish were ogling back at me from their reef dens. This is what I remembered: lively reefs bustling with activity and a wonderful array of species.
Considering I was on the reef with UNEXSO’s resident camera expert to learn some photography skills with my Olymus Pen setup, I had an endless supply of photo opportunities. As Eddy Raphael taught me how to successfully use my strobe – which has always baffled me a little – I was eventually using it effectively. I came to appreciate the transformation in my subjects and how much I could enhance my photos before going anywhere near photoshop.
An additional highlight to the Bahamian reefs is the likelihood of an exciting visitor showing up. Sharks frequent the waters of the Bahamas in abundance and this country boasts one of the healthiest shark populations in the world. Generating upwards of $78 million dollars in dive-related tourism each year, the Bahamian government have recognised the value of these vulnerable creatures and banned all commercial shark fishing in territorial waters – a step up from their previous ban on longline fishing 20 years ago.
Sharks have made the Bahamas a renowned diving destination and it was super to see Cristina has developed a shark-feeding program at UNEXSO wherein the wellbeing of the sharks remains top priority. Taking years to develop and taking into account every last detail such as location, timing, safety procedures, knock on effects and feeding techniques, UNEXSO has established one of the most reputable shark feeding dives in the world. While diving with Cristina it is evident her respect and appreciation for the sharks is why she has managed to develop such a successful and unique affinity with these often-misunderstood animals. As the reef sharks literally swarmed around me, often knocking my camera with their tails tips – and at times fully bumping into me as they couldn’t contain their excitement at the prospect of a hand delivered meal – I watched on as Cristina fed the sharks dressed in her famed chainmail suit.
It is hard to stress enough how uninterested the sharks are in you as a person – especially when you are not the one dressed in the chainmail with a bucket of fish in your hand. I can remember the feelings of trepidation I had before my first ever shark dive back in the Bahamas in 2007. What I remember more vividly, however, is how much my attitude towards sharks shifted after completing the dive. When you dive with sharks you begin to understand them. You watch their powerful bodies effortlessly gliding through the water and you can’t help but admire rather than fear them. The more time you spend in their presence the more you realise their behaviour is entirely focused on the prospect of food. Using movement and smell to detect their prey the sharks know what they are looking for. It is definitely not you. And when the sharks do bump into you it is completely accidental. After all, if Mulberry handbags were going free in Selfridges – being waved in the air to heighten customers’ awareness to this awesome deal – you would be hard pushed to find a lady who would be considerate enough to mind those of you who get in the way of her and that handbag. In-fact, that situation would be a lot more dangerous than a shark dive. I for one would have my elbows out and sprint on.
Speaking with Cristina about the subject of shark feeding was extremely interesting. It is undoubtedly a contentious issue, and rightly so. Too many dive centres do it without sufficient planning and a complete disregard towards the knock on effects. Indeed I have often been disappointed when what is supposed to be a wildlife encounter turns into a petting zoo. I came to realise during my time with Cristina that when done well – with ample forethought, preparation and huge respect for the sharks – it is a great tool for increasing shark awareness. The majority of people enter a shark dive with feelings of fear, but then surface with an appreciation for these endangered animals and hopefully an awareness of their current plight. As with so many conservation issues, education is key. Cristina is more than aware of this and as such the UNEXSO shark-feeing program is geared towards educating divers and making sharks a valued underwater encounter.
I do still believe nothing compares to a chance encounter with a shark during a dive. Despite not having the exhilaration associated with being surrounded by dozens of over-excited sharks, the beauty of seeing a shark in the blue makes you appreciate your place in the world. Yet Cristina has made me appreciate shark-feeding dives a great deal more than I did previously. I have learned their value and place within the diving industry and I do consider shark-feeding dives a vital element in the fight for shark conservation.
After a few days spent with the sharks and gaining more insight into the shark-feeding industry Cristina and I moved inland. Cristina offered me a spot on her Cavern Course, and having been spellbound by my experiences in the caverns of Northern Florida and the Dominican Republic a few weeks earlier I immediately said yes. My fellow student on the course was Erin – a lovely lady from New York City. Together we made it through the blind line navigations and ascents successfully – only becoming muddled in our line a few times!
Looking beyond the line I could see these caverns were incredible. Again, the novelty of the experience captivated me as it had done previously – it is so different from an open water experience. Diving into Ben’s Cavern and Mermaids Cavern I was overtaken by what I can best describe as artistic grandeur. Magnificent rooms with striking hues of blue and green streaming in from the cavern opening made focusing on my line laying skills pretty difficult. Despite having to focus on certain tasks I still found there to be a complete serenity to these dives. With piercing visibility and water so still it almost appears as if it isn’t even there, I was once again transported into another world.
Many people view caverns as eerie and disconcerting places, which is easily understood considering the darkness and more confined environment compared to ocean diving. For me the darkness increases my curiosity. Using my torch as a guide I lit up the different stunning features of the caverns, being awarded small snippets from a grand scene. I enjoyed having to explore and discover what the cavern had to offer, rather than seeing it all laid out in front of me. I appreciate the tranquility of cavern diving: a feeling of peacefulness and detachment from “normal life” takes over.
With one of the World’s most elite instructors guiding me I had two great days getting aquatinted with the basics of cave diving. Indeed the entire week was excellent. Not only was I able to partake in some of the most exciting and beautiful dives of my life, I was also able to learn from Cristina. What Cristina has taught me about diving, as well as life in general, is immeasurable. I know I will continue to follow Cristina’s guidance well into the future.