I talked to Cristina Zenato and was touched by her outlook on life. Because she is the one who recognizes what life offers and then she opens the door to the opportunity she has received. Who has no evolutionary fear to hold her back from development, to hold her back from a rational answer to the unknown that cannot be given then and there. Because she doesn't want answers, she just wants to be there in every snapshot of her life. While living the moments of her life, in which sharks are active characters, she also does it in an environment such as water, which is perhaps not the living space of an average person. Among the sharks, she found that attention, that humans should relearn, the connection.
Lili Lajtár (LL): What motivates you the most in your work?
Cristina Zenato (CZ): I live my life by three words: exploration, education and conservation. I do believe that we have to explore the unknown as much as the known. So sometimes when people say, well, you already know this, I think it’s still our duty to go and investigate more about it. That brings us into education. So once we explore something is educate ourselves, so that we can educate others and ultimately being able to then promote this into conservation. These three words is what motivates my work in both sharks and caves.
LL: Why do you put a lot of emphasis on the Caribbean reef shark?
CZ: Caribbean reef sharks is the sharks that I started to work with and the ones that I found very easy to be in the water with and became very good ambassadors for all the outer sharks. It also is a medium sized sharks. And I realized that sometimes people tend to go for the bigger shark because the bigger the better. And I didn’t want to put emphasis on that. This is not a competition. This is not about the person with the sharks, but it’s about the sharks themselves.
LL: What effect does water pollution have on sharks?
CZ: Water pollution affects sharks on many different levels, directly and indirectly, and by water pollution could be chemicals in the water, like mercury, which has been found in many different species, including sharks, which obviously alters their reproductive rates as well as their growth rate and their sensory systems. But pollution of the water could also be destruction of the places where they go to reproduce, where they go to leave their babies, as well as changes is temperature. Temperatures, we know change the way sharks migrate or sharks when they are supposed to mate. So imagine water temperature goes up too high and the sharks doesn’t feel the need to migrate anymore because there’s no longer cold water for them to move. And that affects them, their reproductive rate, and that affects where the sharks will redistribute, affecting obviously also everything else that depends on sharks in the ocean. So water pollution has numerous effect that have a cascade effect then ultimately on the other ocean animals and us.
LL: Have you experienced a change in behavior of Caribbean reef shark in your lifetime?
CZ: Not really. I find that they have been more or less the same. Their numbers stay the same, they haven’t changed much. They do change due to daily occurrences. Could be if it’s really rough or it’s really silty, they become more agitated. If it’s common, sunny, they’re a little bit more calm. But I haven’t noticed change in their behavior through the 30 years that I have been with them.
LL: What do you think is the best way to protect them?
CZ: Knowledge and understanding will be my first two answers follow, obviously by policy and followed by the hardest one, which is enforcement, knowledge and understanding. Because without knowledge and understanding, we will always have people that do not appreciate or understand why we want to protect sharks in the first place. So you first need to educate. Why do we need sharks? Well, your life and your livelihood depends on them, even if you don’t live by the ocean. How do we protect them? Well, we need to change the way we interact directly with the animals. So fishing laws, how we interact with their food. Here we go again, fishing laws, but also how we interact with the environment that host the sharks. So coastal development, pollution off near the coastline, things that sometimes people don’t think even about, for example, floodlights of homes that build on the beach and we have the beach always lit, and they do not realize that alters cycles. These are very complex question that will require like a full hour conversation just on how the best way to protect them. So if you want a quick answer is, I would say education and understanding and then from there everything that has a consequence from it.
LL: Can it be said that all the shark species you have worked with so far have a different attitude towards humans?
CZ: Definitely, like any animal, you can compare the behavior of a kitten with the behavior of a tiger. Each animal will have a different relationship and a different way of putting themselves towards humans. And so goes for sharks.
LL: Which shark species requires the most caution when swimming around humans? What advice would you give to an inexperienced diver who wants to observe sharks close?
CZ: I will not answer that one because it kind of takes away from the concept of sharks and humans, which is basically sharks do not care about humans. Humans care too much about sharks and put too much emphasis on few little things that happen very few and far between. And I think the perception is very skewed, meaning there’s thousands of people that die every year by asthma attacks, but if there’s a shark bite or a negative encounter, just makes it all over the world and nobody ever talks about these thousands of people that die of asthma attacks. So people have this wrong perception that you enter the water and the sharks will be there. And so as such, my caution is learn about sharks and stop being so arrogant. That will be my basically caution.
LL: When a shark swims to you and seems to fall asleep in your hands, how long can you stay in that position? What can be the explanation for this high degree of trust that they show towards you?
CZ: They can stay in that position as long as I can stay down there. That means if I can stay on a dive for an hour, but it’s up to them. They can stay for a few seconds, couple of minutes, up to an hour. I’ve had everything. It’s on their terms and their decision. It is trust, but it’s also relationship. Basically building a relationship the same way you build in life. You don’t do that in one day. You don’t do that in a week or a month. You do that with continued presence, continued interaction, and understanding and appreciation of each other. Sometimes also understanding when to step in a way when not forcing it. So that is what makes this relationship so wonderful.
LL: Besides sharks, have you ever tried to form a similar connection with another group of living creatures? If not, which creature would you choose and why?
CZ: I don’t know. I have had different connections with different creatures. I grew up in Africa, so I actually was very close to nature, parrots as well as monkeys that were coming through the camp. I dropped really in Central Africa in the middle of the rainforest. So we had monkeys cruising through the compound and will come and pick us up. As well as my dogs, like pets and cats and lizards, I didn’t really choose. I let natures in a certain way, choose me. A lot of it is by sitting and waiting and observing and letting the animals feel comfortable with our presence.
LL: If we dive among sharks, what should we pay attention to?
CZ: Pay attention to your buoyancy, to your air consumption and to your bottom time. If you’re diving, that’s what you should pay attention to.
LL: In videos, you used to point out that sharks have feelings, they can have good or bad days too. How can you recognize the signs?
CZ: How to recognize the signs? Same as we recognize to our loved ones, the ones that we know. Body language, brusque movement, softer movement, avoidance or closeness. So the same way they have a way of expressing the different feelings during the different days.
LL: Articles about shark attacks do not help the reputation of sharks. What could be behind of an attack or an alleged attack?
CZ: There’s so much more to speak about sharks than actually the occasional bites. So I will not address why a shark bites a person. And did you know there’s sharks that actually can walk on land and actually there’s sharks on the size of a pen and actually there’s sharks that have eight senses. How about we talk about that instead of a silly shark bite that happens very few and far between?
LL: You have taken many hooks out of the mouths and gills of sharks. How do you think the hooks could be prevented from entering their bodies? What should people change?
CZ: How do we prevent hooks from entering their bodies? Maybe we should stop a little bit the way we fish or the way we perceive the fact that marine life does not suffer. We should change the way hooks are designed. And I think people should also basically understand that maybe some areas should not be conducive to go and fish because they tend to attract sharks, which is done by the fish, which then ends up with the hooks. We go back to knowledge and understanding and a little bit less arrogance.
LL: Most people have lost their connection with nature and living beings. How could people be motivated to spend more time in nature observing the wildlife in its depths?
CZ: How do we do that? I don’t know. I picked a life on an island for that specific reason to live outside, to live in nature. I think the best way is to go out wherever you are and sit. And it doesn’t need to be a faraway expedition in the heart of Africa or in the heart of Antarctica. It could be as simple as sitting in the garden and without a phone, without headphones, without any digital input and just listening there. And it would be pretty impressive for people to realize how much movement there is around them. Notice the ants maybe crawl over their toes as if they are part of the environment. Listen to the different sounds of the birds. Notice a movement with a corner of the eye of a lizard or of a sparrow tuning in with actually different birds talking to each other. As simple as sitting in the smallest of gardens or the smallest of parks, I think will bring people closer to nature. As easy as taking a dog for a walk without the phone, without headphones. It’s so sad to watch these people. They walk with the dog walking them, and they are just staring down on their phone and tuning in into what the dog is doing, whether they’re smelling why all of a sudden they’re head perked up, what are they hearing that we can hear? And that already will bring us in a different attitude towards nature. Never mind sitting there and listening to the sound of trees, to the sound of the wind, to the sound of the rain. So we don’t even really need animals.
LL: Is there something that missing from your life? If you had the chance, what other species of sharks would you like to meet?
CZ: I don’t feel I have anything missing from my life because I live a life without a bucket list. I try to live the full life that I have. I do believe life is half choices. Meaning in life we can’t have it all. Those people that try to have it all will always be disappointed. I think we need to decide what we would like to have the most and when we haven’t realized it’s 50% of what we could have. I’ll give an example. You can have a life fulfilled with, I don’t know, married with kids and growing your kids, or you can have life, no, I just want to live in a camper and just go and explore around and have no boundaries. And maybe you can do a little bit of both, but sometimes you cannot have both. And so you pick one and you say: I’m going to make the best of this one. The one that makes you happy, that when you wake up in the morning, you think, I cannot wait two. And that’s what I do. I cannot wait two and such allows me not to feel like I’m missing something. Honestly, I don’t feel I’m missing something. Same as the species of sharks. I would like to meet whichever will come on my path. Excellent. I’m looking forward to it. If we will never meet, it’s okay. I’ve met enough and I’ve been with enough, and it’s good like that. I think having expectations creates a lot of disappointments. Instead of waking up and thinking, this is so magnificent as it is. And then when somebody says, hey, we’d like to try that and say, yes, I want to try that. I think that brings more satisfaction.
Life is a mystery where we always have opportunities to experience something new. There is nothing more beautiful than vanishing in the fog, after having bathed in the light countless times. Thanks to Cristina for giving me a glimpse into the daily life of sharks.