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Cristina Zenato: why we should never underestimate the “power of one”

A quarter of a century ago world leading shark expert Cristina Zenato went on holiday in the Bahamas. After falling in love with the creatures she met beneath the waves, she never turned back.

When she’s not teaching the likes of Will Smith to confront a fear of sharks, exploring caves, or running shark handling courses, she’s hanging out with her reef sharks, many of whom have known her for 20 years. So comfortable are they in her presence that they’ll slumber in her lap, allowing her to kiss them on the nose. This trust extends to all sharks she meets. If she finds one bearing a fishing hook, they’ll let her take it out.  

Every year about 100 million sharks are killed, mostly at the hands of the global fishing industry. But a world without these apex predators would have serious consequences for marine and freshwater ecosystems. Zenato told The Skylark that if we are to mend our broken relationship with the natural world then first we have to fix our disconnect with the ocean.

Many people say they love to go to the beach, listen to the sound of the waves, stick their toes in the wash and look out to the horizon. But it’s hard to really fall in love with the ocean, to the extent that you feel a need to protect it. Not only for most people is it a case of out of sight out of mind, but humans have yet to grasp the ocean’s vastness.

There is a very small percentage of the population who go into the sea at a superficial level – the surfers, the kayakers, the paddleboarders and snorkelers. Then there is an even smaller group who actually submerge the water. When they do, they experience just the smallest fraction of what the ocean is. Most of the ocean is under the waves, inaccessible and impossible to explore even with deep sea submarines and expedition equipment.

So, even though most people say they love the ocean, they don’t because we’re so disconnected from it. And it shows.

Freediving with the sharks. Photo by Amanda Cotton
Freediving with the sharks. Photo by Amanda Cotton

The oceans are in terrible trouble because they’re mostly forgotten; a forgotten part of our planet despite being two thirds of it. The oceans are considered everyone’s for the taking and to do with what they want. When an oil tanker sinks, people only really care when it starts effecting the coastline. That’s when people start asking whose fault it is. But when it’s out in the open ocean, it’s no one’s territory.

We have laws to protect our coastlines, but as soon as you go beyond 12 miles offshore, it’s a free for all. Cruise ships, once they are far enough away from the coast have pretty much free reign to simply throw their waste overboard and into the ocean without any regard as to who or what it might affect. And it’s not just pollution but fishing too. This year we had 260 Chinese vessels sitting on the borders of protected areas of the Galapagos, home to one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems. And they can just sit there one mile from the border, harvesting fish by their millions; fish and sea creatures that have no boundaries.

But everyone just says oh well, it’s not my territory. But why? Why is this territory so unspoken for?

That somewhere else is almost always the ocean

As humans, we have a massive disconnect with the ocean. Not just with people and animals, but people and the water specifically. In school, children are shown these little drawings with the clouds and the rain and the rivers and the sea, and they’re told it’s a cycle. But they never fully understand their connection with the water.

That’s the biggest thing I try to do with my work; break down that disconnect. Yes, we need to protect sharks and therefore we need to protect their food and nursing grounds and breeding areas. But sharks exist along the coastline, and to protect the coastline you have to protect the land – because it’s all connected.

Cristina conducting cave exploration. Photo by Paige Colwell
Cristina conducting cave exploration. Photo by Paige Colwell

Roads and car parks are covered in dark patches caused by leaking oil or petrol. How many people on a rainy day watch those dark spots get washed away and think it’s just disappeared? Of course it hasn’t disappeared. That oil goes down the drain, into the river and into the ocean.

I look at how we live, how we maintain our lives, how we have created a consumerism that makes us believe that our pollution and problems just go away. When people say “I’ve thrown it away”, I say “no, you’ve just thrown it out of sight”. This stuff doesn’t go away, it just goes somewhere else. And that somewhere else is almost always the ocean.

A sport involves teams of equal partnership

That disconnect also translates into how we view the animal kingdom. Consider how we’ve turned fishing into a sport. To me, a sport involves two contenders or teams of equal partnership, wilfully competing in something enjoyable or fun. Fishing is nothing like that and certainly not equal. When you’ve hooked a fish you may comment that it’s giving you a good fight – well, that’s because it’s fighting for its life. We have somehow diminished sea creatures’ capabilities to think, feel and connect. But that’s not what I have experienced in my life with sharks, groupers, yellowtail snappers, moray eels and more.

Cristina has been diving the same reefs for so long that she is now has an affinity with many of the fish and sharks. Photo by Lucie Drlikova
Cristina has been diving the same reefs for so long that she is now has an affinity with many of the fish and sharks. Photo by Lucie Drlikova

For 26 years I’ve been diving in the same place. I know every coral head. I know who is there now, who has died. I’ve known anemones for 16 years, my sharks for 20 years. I can speak to groupers in basic sign language; I’ve got four or five hand signs that they understand. I have fish that I have forged relationships with. They see me and they come over and follow me the entire time like bodyguards.

Most people don’t have that, of course. But once you consider an animal as something that can feel, as something sentient, as something that can suffer, then we change our entire appreciation for the natural world and we stop viewing animals as purely “it”.

I call the creatures I know he or she. People ask me how do I know their gender. Well, with sharks it’s easy to know their sex because it’s visible. But with most fish it’s impossible, so I use my native Italian language where each name has a female or male article. The grouper, the eel, the salmon – they’re feminine so I call them “she”. People still ask how I know they’re female, but they’re missing the point. I’m not assigning a gender, but giving them an entity. They’re not “it”. My phone, my bathroom, a table – those are “it”.

A kiss on the nose shows the true nature of sharks. Photo by Victor Douieb
A kiss on the nose shows the true nature of sharks. Photo by Victor Douieb

With sharks I try to go further and I give them names because they have specific personalities and behavioural traits. I want to try to use my sharks as ambassadors and help people relate to all sharks around the world. Removing the hooks I find in sharks is a symbolic gesture. People are shocked when they see what has happened to the shark and the damage inflicted to this animal. They are also surprised that I will risk my life, although I don’t think I do. Maybe some cuts, bruises and twisted wrists, sure – but I don’t risk my life.

How to help, without removing hooks

Removing hooks is the least thing you can do. It’s a small niche, it’s extremely specialised and I didn’t go in the water and three days later start removing hooks. It took years to decide to do that.

There are easier and more impactful things you can do before that. Look into legislation and find out whether sharks and fish are protected and looked after. Discover if there are laws against long lining, drift nets and drag fishing. These are lethal, not only for sharks, but for dolphins, turtles and entire marine ecosystems. Likewise, find out if your country has laws against shark finning or importing shark fins. If not, do something about it.

What is the education like in your country? Could you do outreach programmes with your local schools? I help people who speak languages that I don’t, so that they can go into schools and teach children about what is happening to the natural world. Can you do that? Education delivered in someone’s own language by people who are part of their own culture is so important.

Then there’s plastic pollution. You can genuinely help sharks by reducing plastic pollution because the ocean is where it all ends up. And of course consider your carbon footprint. The oceans are heating because of carbon emissions. The little things you do make a difference. Can you car pool, take the train, or ride a bike? Can you hang your laundry instead of using a dryer? It might sound insignificant and silly, but if we all pitch in, it does far more than removing a hook.

You don’t have to do them all. Just do a few. Do what you can. Maybe it’s food, maybe it’s energy, maybe it’s waste. It’s not hard.

The power of one

I am a firm believer of the story of the star thrower. An old man walks along the beach and sees a younger man in the distance. As he approaches he realises that the young man is picking up starfish off the beach, stranded by an exceptionally low tide, and is putting them back in the water. The old man tells the young man that what he is doing is pointless.

“There are thousands and thousands of starfish on this stretch of beach alone and there are miles and miles of beaches along this coast. You will never make a difference.”

The kid looks at the starfish in his hand, ponders for a moment and puts it back in the water. “Well, I made a difference for that one,” he replies.

Portrait of Steph, one of the few sharks named after a person. Photo by Cristina Zenato
Portrait of Steph, one of the few sharks named after a person. Photo by Cristina Zenato

The problem is that sometimes we stand there thinking about how big the problems are and how we hope someone out there is doing something equally big about them. We need to realise that we are that someone. We are that star thrower.

When people ask what they can do to help I say, “just become a star thrower.” Pick something small that will make a little difference and everytime you meet someone, tell them to be a star thrower too. They then tell someone else and before you know it, you have hundreds of star throwers on the beach making a difference.

That’s the power of one.

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