People Of The Water: Exploration, Education, Conservation
by Cristina Zenato
Cristina is shark behaviourist & conservationist, PADI Course Director, full cave instructor and explorer. She founded the non-profit People Of The Water, and teaching and sharing are the core of her work. She is a fourth element ambassador.
I live my life by three words I incorporate in my work, teaching, and actions. I believe these words can help us change this world: Exploration, Education, Conservation. Exploration is the essence of the human spirit. I am an explorer of our planet, oceans, and the underwater caves.
I believe we are made for exploration, not only of the unknown but of the known. We need to look at things and events in different ways, with new eyes and open hearts. I am an explorer of myself and my surrounding, never failing to sit and observing together with participating and questioning the effects caused by each of my actions. Education becomes a critical factor in changing false perceptions about our world. Once we have explored it and asked the questions, we need to seek knowledge for better understanding.
An example of one of the maps created by the team
I always have sought education for myself so that I could share it with others. I soon discovered how genuine is the concept of “Knowledge is power.” As I progressed in my experience and gained more knowledge, I realized that we needed to look at our world as a complex eco-system to protect.
I didn’t wake up one morning and decided to become a conservationist. Conservation became my lifestyle, the reflection of my actions, the result of exploration and education. I realized that we impact everything around us, and when we cannot eliminate it, we need to learn to mitigate its effects. Conservation is not a catch-phrase; it is not something to do once per day when we open our laptop to write something. We need to learn to change for the world instead of expecting the world to change for us. Conservation permeates every aspect of my life.
Mangroves around the blue holes
While I continued to live my life following these three words, I realized that I had to find more support if I wanted to expand my reach.
In January 2019, I founded People of the Water (Pownonprofit.org). POW is a nonprofit organized to widen the distribution of training, education, and research, relating to water, ocean, and environmental issues, affecting both the people and the animals of said environments.
Cristina And Kewin At Anaconda Cave
In 2018, Kewin Lorenzen came to the island to learn about sharks and cave diving. In just two months, he changed his life, and later, he joined me with the nonprofit’s work to expand and continue the mission of exploration, education, and conservation.
Following the work I conducted for years before its foundation, we plan to continue two main projects, with the biggest goal is to show how caves and sharks are so interconnected.
Baby Shark In The Shallows Near The Cave
The Bahamas are a shark sanctuary since 2011; however, protecting sharks goes beyond protecting the animals themselves. We have to be able to preserve their food and where they reproduce. Mangroves are nurseries for marine creatures, from invertebrates to bony fishes and sharks. In these areas, the animals breed, allowing their young to grow protected from the larger predators.
During my work as a cave explorer, I realized how vital these areas were for the survival of sharks and the ocean around them. Ocean blue holes and land caves connect in an intricate system similar to the underground metro of a city, linking locations on the island and in the ocean we didn’t even know are dependent on one another.
The Line Between Fresh And Salt Water
The limestone composition of this archipelago is the main reason we have so many caves to explore. The soft rocks allow the rainwater to filter through the layers and deposit itself on the top of the saltwater level. The Bahamian caves are an immense, but not unlimited, reservoir of freshwater supply. While the limestone is a natural filter, the disruption of its integrity through various pollutants makes it extremely vulnerable to damage and destruction. Once the rocks’ filtering capabilities are compromised, particles of many different origins can find their way into the water table.
Unregulated development on the land directly above the caves, with the area’s consequent pollution, causes extreme damage to the entire system.
When the pollution travels through the rocks and hits the water, it also follows the water’s path, reaching everywhere these passageways reach.
Next summer, during the Caribbean Reef sharks’ mating season, we plan to install two satellite tags to monitor where two female sharks will go. As part of our work through the nonprofit, we have completed a list of all the sharks present in the two-mile stretch we usually dive. Each individual is given a name after six months. Each animal is measured using laser photogrammetry, a non-invasive method to record size and growth. Videos and images of each shark are also collected and filed for reference.
Thanks to this work, we can identify each shark, and we can keep a log of their presence and cycles. We recognize which one will be pregnant and which one will be ready to mate. Locating where they will go will provide crucial information on the necessity to protect the whole area.
Portrait Of Steph
We believe it will bring us back to the mangroves and the caves and blue holes in those locations. The second project is a long-term one. For now, we are working on Grand Bahama Island, but we hope to expand this to more islands of The Bahamas. Our first goal was to identify as many possible cave entrances as we could find. We then set out to reach them, sometimes through very long and hard hikes, and enter to verify a leading cave. Some areas showed the sign of an existing cave, such as stalactites and stalagmites, but they did not have access big enough to fit through beyond the basin area. Each time we found a cave, no matter how small, one of us would lay a line, and the second one would survey it to create a map of the tunnels.
Thanks to modern technology, we can now GPS the entrance and draw a map using satellite images, pinpointing exactly where the system is. We continue our work by creating interactive maps; these are maps of the cave that appear like stick figures but with marked points that any viewer can click. A video, previously collected during our dives, opens on the location selected and continues to play following the line. The spectators become the diver, and the video takes them on a cave diving journey. Protecting this web requires people to understand how it works, appreciate its value, and connect to it.
Kewin Installing One Of The Cave Pearls In Svartalfheim
To collect more information about the water movement in the caves and the relationship with seasons, regular and exceptional events, such as hurricanes, we connected with Dr. Patricia Beddows. We deployed flow meters and depth sensors, the “Cave Pearls,” designed to be in the water long term and collect data to provide us information about changes over the years.
Not everyone can be a diver or cave diver; bringing to the surface the cave’s map, images of its beauty, and explaining the connections becomes vital to the cave itself. Once we can protect the cave, we expand it to all the creatures living in proximity and any area influenced by it. In turn, this affects us, humans.
Cristina Using Mnemo To Map The Cave
The work of POW then continues through education. I have delivered over two hundred zoom classrooms, online presentations, sessions, and talks in the last six months. While both Kewin, who recently accepted the position as a board of directors, and I are active divers and work together on the diving projects, we share different duties dictated by our capabilities and unique skills. For now, it’s just the two of us, but we hope with time to be able to expand and welcome new team members and volunteers.