By Chantal Boccaccio
Cristina Zenato is an enigma; a quiet symphony of fire and passion wrapped in a little girls body. A world-renowned diver, mentored by diving legend Ben Rose, Zenato defies any sort of traditional labeling as shes undeniably One Of A Kind.
--As well as a tireless champion for shark awareness.
This pint sized Italian, part ballerina, part fish out of water, has the ability to coax- what some might call- mans most feared predator, literally, into the palm of her hand.
But dont call them Predators to her face, because to Cristina Zenato, theyre simply family.
Zenatos astounding ability to lull the oceans predators into a trance-like state, allows her to literally hold what some consider the world's deadliest animals in the palm of her hand.
Her techniques have allowed her to globally share behavioral data, tend to injured sharks, extract DNA and engage in rescues that might otherwise prove too precarious.
Zenato induces a "tonic" state in the shark, in effect hypnotizing it, by rubbing the ampullae of Lorenzini - the name given to hundreds of jelly-filled pores around the animal's nose and mouth. The pores usually act as electroreceptors for the shark to detect nearby prey, but when gently rubbed they bring on a natural paralysis, which can last for up to 15 minutes.To the observer, this looks like the shark has fallen asleep right in her lap. Zenatos ability to work with sharks in this manner has enabled her to study up close, in the wild, a mysterious world very few will ever encounter.
As a precaution, however, Zenato wears a chain mail suit. Sharks have rows of razor sharp teeth and a powerful bite. The chain mail is designed to keep those teeth from penetrating the skin if the shark bites down on a diver.
Hers is certainly not a traditional work week. With over 17 years experience and a daily log of shark diving activities, rescues and behavioral study, Cristina Zenato is the First Lady of shark behavior, DNA sampling, migratory patterns as well as a leader in shark conservation. Cristina teaches shark awareness and trains shark professionals all over the world.
A passionate advocate for marine life, her genuine nature betrays a love affair with the ocean, and its inhabitants, that most of us only speak of; few of us dare to put their money where their mouths are; few dare to brave that mostly unknown world that Zenato inhabits on a daily basis.
Sharks are an endangered species, Zenato explains, but they are a very important part of our eco-system, and they are so misunderstood.
The only time sharks make it into the news, Zenato maintains is when someone has been injured. The only time you see them on TV is during SHARK WEEK. I don't want my story to be told like that. For me, my story with the sharks, and what we do together, is the opposite. There is a peacefulness. I sense that they trust me, and they know that I trust them.
Zenato speaks with a soft accent that's hard to place, as so many places have left a hand upon her heart. Born in the African Congo, my tremendous passion for the sea surfaced at a young age, and then I followed my love for the ocean, I journeyed to the Bahamas, where I found my calling Zenato smiles, recalling the memory.
- because its there she met Ben Rose, who changed her life
The legendary Ben Rose was a pioneer in marine identification and discovered the underwater cave and cavern system located in the Lucayan National Park. Bens Cave is world renowned and named after the man who discovered this natural treasure.
It was Rose who taught her how to feed and handle sharks, and from there her passion to study shark behavior was inflamed.
Now from the Bimini Shark Lab, South Africa, North Carolina, Florida and Mexico, Cristina reports for newsletters about sharks, cave diving and training, having observed first hand the behaviors of Great Whites, Tigers, Lemons, Reefs, and Bulls.
It was Ben Rose who first trained her in the techniques of tonic immobility; from there, she expanded the practice to remove hooks from sharks mouths, to remove parasites, and to work her Awareness Campaign against shark finning and capture, for shark protection, as well as human education.
In 2000, Zenato used her own time and money to train in Florida to become a Full Cave Diving Instructor. Shes therecipient of the Platinum Pro Award 5000 from Scuba Schools International and a member of Women Divers Hall of Fame.
Speaking five different languages, Italian, English, German, French and Spanish, Cristina became a tour de force a PADI, NAUI, SSI, SDI, open water instructor, NSS-CDS full cave instructor, Extended Range Instructor, TDI advanced Nitrox with decompression procedure and more.
For 17 years, shes worked for The Underwater Explorers Society, and from her humble beginnings as a Scuba Instructor, she climbed the ladder to become the head of diving at UNEXSO, teaching technical diving plus cave and cavern classes. When Cristina is not working, she can usually be found freediving or exploring new cave systems.
All of these feats would be enough for most, but not for Zenato, as they pale in comparison to her passion for studying sharks and instructing the public about shark awareness.
The sharks at her home in the Bahamas instinctively recognize her gentle spirit, and warm to her touch. Visitors at the Shark Dive at UNEXSO are encouraged to feel the sharks skin while in their calm state, allowing them to dissolve any misconceptions or preconceptions they may have had about shark life. She teaches interested divers to feed the local Caribbean Reef sharks by hand, hoping to bring people closer to understanding the secret world of these amazing creatures.
In these incredible photographs, Cameraman Matthew, 42, caught the moment she brought a Caribbean Reef shark under control. He said: "My first time to witness Cristina feeding the sharks was amazing. I expected an adrenaline rush, but the dive was so peaceful and calm. It was totally relaxing to watch the sharks swim slow circles around us in hopes of being fed by Cristina. I was in awe and could not keep the smile off my face. She's been working with sharks for more than 15 years. She's incredibly comfortable around them and that calmness seems to translate to the sharks as well.
"Watching her with the sharks, it almost seems like certain sharks enjoy the sensation and nuzzle into her lap for attention."
Freelance journalist Dia Osborn concurs I just stumbled across this three minute, somewhat-unnerving-yet-deeply-moving video of Christina Zenato, a woman diver, interacting with sharks down in the Bahamas. Frankly, I didnt believe this kind of gentle relationship was even possible and yet here it is anyway. Sometimes it feels so good to be wrong. Osborn offers what fascinated me most was what happened in my brain while I watched. I swear I could feel it rewiring. Some deep and unquestioned prejudice against sharks took a hit here, big time. For Cristina Zenato, this is Shoot, Score! As it is her life mission to dispel the myths ingrained in our culture about sharks while portraying them in a new light. Sharks are perhaps the most feared, maligned and misunderstood species on the planet, Zenato maintains, they are also a crucial component of our ocean's ecosystem and many of their kind are now critically endangered. Her Raison detre is to instill public awareness of the plight and danger of extinction these elegant and amazing marine creatures face.
A sense of who Cristina Zenato is can only truly be felt underwater. There, she is more at home than she is on land. There, this enigma, this pint sized ballerina of the sea, is able to realize her life-long aspiration: She dreamed of swimming with sharks.
Now she dances with them.
From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to earth. But man has only to sink beneath the surface and he is free.
- Jacques Cousteau
Currently, the team behind the award-winning PBS series CUISINE CULTURE is making a documentary about this incredible woman. The filmmakers have collectively worked on series for A&E, National Geographic Channel, ShowTime, Tru TV and many other networks.
SHARK WHISPERER is a film whose goal is to spread public awareness about the plight of sharks, and the amazing work of Cristina Zenato They are currently raising funds for the documentary through Kickstarter crowd funding. Interested parties can go to this link to learn more about the project, and help by passing this on to anyone whom you think can assist in the fundraising. There are excellent rewards for their Financial Angels - including the opportunity to swim with Cristina and her sharks in the Bahamas! Any help is greatly appreciated! Together, we can make a difference!
LINK TO THE PROJECT AND ZENATOS AMAZING VIDEO:
Boccaccio is an award-winning TV and screen writer, formerly with the William Morris Agency (her agent just retired). She has written, and created Original Shows, for ShowTime, UPN, A&E, Court TV, TRU TV, TLC, National Geographic Channel and Discovery.
Her first Original TV Pilot won a Scriptapalooza TV Writing Award. She was a senior writer on Untold Stories of the ER, TLC's first Scripted Episodic (GRB Entertainment), where she worked on up to FIVE episodes a day!
Boccaccio has written and optioned about a half dozen indie feature screenplays.
As a journalist, Shes written for a wide variety of periodicals, from New Times to Prison Life Magazine. She's covered a myriad of topics, spanning the worlds of crime, forensics, medical and tech issues, Death Penalty and legal issues, the DNA database, cell phone technology, psychology and motorcycle daredevils.
She spent two years touring with Evel Knievel and a troupe of World Record Holding Daredevils, where she produced various projects for them. Her philanthropic projects include The Bob Gill Foundation, created by Bob Gill and Evel Knievel to help paralyzed people walk again, and Think Global Kids, specializing in learning programs for disadvantaged children.
Boccaccio hails from Boston Massachusetts, and currently lives in Hollywood, where she creates TV shows for No Fly Zone Pictures. Shes an editor on the critically acclaimed PBS Series CUISINE CULTURE.