How do you get where you are today

Very often, I receive questions about how I arrived to do what I do, especially in the field of working with sharks. Some people want to know my field of studies, what I minor and major in, how much biology helped me with my work, and how someone else can arrive to do what I do. 

Every time, I find it hard to explain the complexity of my journey. Let me start with one simple fact: I didn’t study marine biology. I didn’t even study biology. I studied languages and all the subjects related to art, history, culture, poetry, literature. 

I had a childhood dream to have sharks for friends while working as an underwater scuba ranger that would control the safety and health of the oceans. However, I had a family that encouraged my passion for the water, going into marine biology was never a thought; it was a very foreign concept at my time and in my culture. I am glad things have changed, and more young people are aware and interested in these opportunities.

So how did I arrive here?

It has been a 26-year long road. I always wanted to scuba dive and had the opportunity to learn it right here, where I am living on Grand Bahama Island. How I landed a course here is a series of coincidences and choices; once here and certified, I realized I didn’t want to go back to the world of art and literature in the core of Italy, but I wanted to be by the ocean, in it and make my childhood dream come true. I dropped everything in a week, and I accepted a job at the hotel front desk where I could use my knowledge of foreign languages and moved to the Bahamas. The plan was to dive for a year and then move back home to resume my “real job.” As you can tell, I didn’t. The more I submerged, the more I become enveloped in the beauty and mystery of the sea. Along the way, I met amazing people who helped me gain experience and knowledge and encouraged me in my journey. Very early on, I met my mentor, Ben Rose, who had just started to do shark dives and started to dive and train under him. In a year, I was in charge of the shark dive, working with sharks and interacting with them. I also discovered the presence on the island of underground, underwater caves, and after becoming a cave diver, I started to read about them, dive them, and when I reached the end of the line, to explore them. I continued to expand my skills. I grew in cave and technical diving.

While an instructor, I learned to drive boats, manage a crew of 13-22 people, and complete schedules.  I learned about underwater photography and videography. In my spare time, I devoured every book (yes book, we are talking about 1994 onward) about marine life, sharks, marine biology, physiology, physics, cave exploration, survey. I learned every single job there was to learn about being a scuba diver, from repairing regulators to repairing tanks. I grew laterally and not only vertically. With the shark and caves part of my work, I assumed more and more responsibilities and work. I trained divers, and then convinced them to join me on unique dives, I organized extraordinary diving adventures so that I could go as a leader, I learned things because I loved them and that proved useful and vital years later. I never thought any job was beneath me. When there were an opportunity and money to travel, I used it to go and take additional training courses to meet other cave divers and instructors and to dive with sharks in specific locations to see how the people there managed their shark dives. I volunteered on missions, on works, I joined expeditions with my own money and time, so I could learn and absorb as much as I could. I used to look at the horizon and think it was the beginning of my world. Parallel to my education, I also acquired a better understanding of the marine environment. Working with sharks and cave showed me the close relationships between ecosystems.  I became involved with the local environmental nonprofit, and I went cave diving to bring back data, collect samples. I connected cave passages to mangroves, mangroves to sharks, I provided information to create MPA and advocate for conservation. At first, I worked on this island and with time in other places through invitations. I never stopped teaching. After twenty years, I finally decided to become an instructor trainer. 

Meanwhile, I never stopped diving with my sharks, learning about them, collecting images of their fins and physical characteristics, connect to them as creatures, and shared this with anyone who wanted to learn. At first, it was only through direct contact, divers, students, and sometimes some magazines or TV programs, but when the internet started to grow, the exposure of my work grew with it. I never left because of my deep love for my group of sharks, who have become the ambassadors for many other sharks as well, and my parallel passion for cave diving. 

My life is a unique one, I was in a way “lucky” as many put it, but I believe I made my luck. I was not the only one who landed here in 1994 as a young person and a young diving instructor, but I was the only one that stayed, through what many of my friends define as “thick and thin.” To this day, I complete jobs I don’t favor so I can keep doing what I love. I stayed through major hurricanes, the last Dorian. At times these storms would put my life on hold.  I never accepted a better-paid job to be able to keep doing what I love the most. I work an average of 80-90 hours per week to complete all the above-the-water tasks so I can continue to dedicate my daylight and sometimes nights to diving. I missed many celebrations with my family, all of my dad’s birthday but for his last one when he turned 80 (he passed away a year ago) I saw them every few years for a couple of weeks, and I missed all the family reunions and events. I am not saying this to solicit pity, but to share the reality of life, I would never want to change. I am still diving with sharks, and I am cave diving. We need to remember that in life, things come at a price, and we need to decide which is the price we want to pay for it. If the price-benefit is good enough for me and I wake every morning looking forward to doing the best I can in my field, then I know it is still a valid choice. I cannot recommend the type of studies or roads to follow.  I  can only recommend to follow the heart and passion and remember it might require to study something or accept a part of the job that we don’t like or don’t want to do.

Nothing will come in one day, nor a year. Studies are the beginning, but we then need to work around them, to volunteer, or to try different fields and discover unique possibilities. Most likely, one day, we will find out that we are right where we are supposed to be.

Cristina Zenato

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