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Cristina Zenato // Empowering Communities for Sustainable Marine Conservation

Cristina Zenato diving with sharks. She only wears protection when interacting and removing hooks, not for day to day diving encounters. Photo credit: Kewin Lorenzen

This Earth Month, we celebrate a friend of Blue Action, Bahamian diving legend and tireless advocate for ocean conservation: Cristina Zenato.  Captivated by the underwater realm, Cristina's passion goes beyond its beauty.  She's deeply fascinated by The Bahamas' hidden depths – unlocking the secrets of shark behavior and exploring the intricate underwater cave systems.  But what truly sets Cristina apart is her holistic view.  As she says, "Water flows through every aspect of our lives, following that flow makes us realize that everything is so vitally interconnected."  This belief fuels her mission to connect the dots between seemingly disparate underwater worlds, revealing how crucial both sharks and cave systems are to the health of The Bahamas' precious coastal ecosystems.

Cristina's unwavering commitment to ocean health is embodied in her non-profit, People of the Water (POW). This impactful initiative tackles critical issues head-on by providing essential training, education, and vital research on cave exploration and shark behavior.  POW empowers a diverse range of individuals to understand the delicate balance of The Bahamas' marine environment.  As advocates of positive climate solutions for ocean and coastal resilience, Blue Action are passionate supporters of the POW mission. 

Imagine Bahamian fishers equipped with sustainable fishing practices that protect shark populations. Or students gaining a profound understanding of how healthy cave systems are vital for filtering freshwater that nourishes coastal ecosystems.  POW empowers a diverse range of individuals – from those whose livelihoods depend on healthy oceans to researchers safeguarding marine life. By equipping them with the necessary knowledge and tools, Cristina fosters a generation of passionate ocean stewards, ensuring the long-term health of The Bahamas' marine environment.

Cristina & Kewin diving alongside a tiger shark. Photo credit: Kewin Lorenzen

Today, Cristina is widely recognized as a “Shark Interpreter”, a title earned not just through a lifetime of diving with these magnificent creatures, but also by fostering a remarkable emotional connection. "Diving to me has always been like going home, when I submerge beneath the surface I feel like I am going to a place that I belong," Cristina says. As a fervent behaviorist she describes what she does, “I observe, understand and interpret shark behavior to change people’s often erroneous perception of sharks, fueled by incorrect media portrayals and language”.  This deep connection fuels her unwavering passion for marine conservation.

Photo credit: Kewin Lorenzen

Cristina has removed over 350 hooks from sharks. "The hooks became the symbol of the vulnerability of sharks from a human presence," she explains. "It may not mean much to the world, but to that shark, it means the world. It might be the chance to heal the wound, eat again, and avoid further damage and discomfort," she adds, highlighting the importance of even small acts of care.

Despite their critical role as apex predators, sharks in The Bahamas face a multitude of threats. Overfishing (both targeted and accidental), habitat degradation from pollution and development, and climate change disrupt breeding, feeding, and prey availability. This jeopardizes the delicate balance of The Bahamas' marine ecosystem, with potential consequences for fisheries, tourism, and the health of coral reefs and seagrass beds dependent on healthy prey diversity.

Balanced marine ecosystem The Bahamas with sharks and fish

Healthy marine ecosystem in The Bahamas. Photo credit: Kewin Lorenzen

The Bahamas combats these threats through stricter regulations. Unlike Florida, where some regulated shark fishing is allowed, The Bahamas prioritizes conservation with near-complete bans on shark fishing and the establishment of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) as sanctuaries for these crucial ocean inhabitants.  Cristina works with government officials to implement protective legislation and establish these marine sanctuaries, intended to serve as safe havens, allowing shark populations to recover and replenish, promoting a balanced marine ecosystem.

Cristina's mission is dedicated to dispelling negative stereotypes and fostering respect for these often-misunderstood creatures. Through captivating presentations and science-based educational programs, fueled by her firsthand experiences, Cristina dismantles myths surrounding sharks and underscores their ecological importance. People come to appreciate the vital role sharks play in maintaining healthy ocean ecosystems, fostering a powerful desire to protect them.

Cristina Zenato Cave diving Grand Bahama

Cristina diving in the unexplored cave systems of Grand Bahama.  Photo credit: Kewin Lorenzen

Living near the Lucayan Cavern, one of The Bahamas' longest underwater cave systems, and inspired by her mentor Ben Rose, for whom one of the entrances is named, she developed a fascination with these hidden worlds. For the last 30 years and more recently, with her husband, Kewin Lorenzen, Cristina has ventured into unexplored caves and underground passages, pushing the boundaries of discovery. Cristina's holistic view emphasizes the interconnectedness of the island's ecosystems. "We are an island, on an island in this universe," she says, "and protecting caves is part of protecting sharks."  Her work highlights the vital role these hidden underwater worlds play in the health of the entire island.

People of the Water offers diving courses specifically designed to educate participants about shark behavior and conservation efforts. Led by Cristina herself, these courses provide a unique opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of cave ecosystems, shark biology, behavior, and the threats they face. This newfound knowledge is key to fostering responsible interactions and inspiring conservation efforts.

Cristina Zenato's story serves as a powerful reminder: protecting our planet starts with understanding it, especially when it comes to misunderstood creatures like sharks, and complex ecosystems like underwater caves.  There is a sense that Cristina’s work has only just begun as she explains “My energy is my passion for life, in all its forms, shapes and environments; it is as deep as the abyss, as vast as the surface of this water planet, as ready to move and adapt as water and strong enough to take down any obstacles in its path."  People of the Water's dedication to education and community empowerment reflects the passion and promise shared by conservationists like Cristina today.  

Inspired by Cristina's story, what small action can you take to be a champion for the earth?  Whether it's reducing your plastic consumption, supporting sustainable seafood choices, or educating others about the importance of healthy marine. 


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