What an experience to cherish!
My travels to the north shore of Haiti with Reef Check to teach 15 university students the PADI Open Water Diver course, are the reasons I, (Maya Shoup) became a PADI instructor. Not only to make a difference in an individual’s life, but to also raise awareness for our ocean and its conservation….to make a change!
Haiti’s coral reefs and fish population have been on a dramatic decline over the years due to overfishing. Local fisherman can no longer find the big fish to catch and are now targeting the smaller fish like parrotfish, snappers, grunts and more. The reason their targeting these smaller fish is because that’s all they have left due to overfishing, lack of fishing regulations and lack of marine protected areas. The reefs of Haiti are in threat of extinction. As Reef Check builds their Eco Diver Team in Haiti, they are also building awareness to the locals about the importance of restoring, replenishing and protecting what little coral and fish they have left.
With over 300 applicants wanting to become Eco Divers, Reef Check’s team had some work to do to pick the most suitable 15 candidates that would move towards their PADI Open Water course. Before I arrived to Haiti to teach their SCUBA course, these 15 students worked very hard to learn how to swim and snorkel. As their skills and confidence increased, they were ready for the world of SCUBA. The opportunity to explore the underwater world by SCUBA in Haiti is very uncommon. It was explained to me as “an opportunity of a life time”, according to the students.
When I first arrived, I was filled with excitement to meet my hard working students. Knowing how much they worked to get to this point in their course was a great feeling for any SCUBA instructor. Knowing the passion that these students held for becoming Eco Divers with Reef Check and help conserve their oceans, made our language barrier struggle a little less of a challenge for me, (that and the help of Reef Checks staff that worked as amazing translators). Most students’ primary language was creole, mine is English.
As we began pool sessions with the first group, I was shocked at their confidence level with equipment, skills, and sinus clearing. They had already watched the PADI training videos and have been reading the Open Water Manual and were breezing right through the skills. Equipment was getting assembled properly, mask and regulators were getting cleared, ears were equalizing. At that moment I thought to myself, “they got the skills, now do they really know the reasoning behind learning the skills,…..knowledge review and quiz time”! We had our after pool dive briefing and this is where the language barrier got interesting, not only was I teaching the students SCUBA but now the students were also teaching me creole.
After two days mastering their new skills in the pool, it was time for our ocean dives. I couldn’t wait to see my student’s expression when they first submersed themselves underwater in the big blue ocean. As I saw the excitement of my students grow, I had to remind them to keep an eye on their buddy and gauges at all time. As we all descended, it was a moment no SCUBA instructor can forget, every student began radiating with excitement, smiles from ear to ear. Conditions for the day couldn’t have been better at Lablallee for us. We had nice calm seas that helped us move through our skills and give both groups a nice shallow dive exploring and spotting various reef fish like parrotfish, squirrel fish, grunts, and even some sea urchins and eels. We were lucky enough to also dive a shallow plane wreck that was purposely put off the beach to attract fish.
By our second day in the ocean, dive three and four, you saw the student’s skills peak. Gear was getting assemble properly and gauges were being clipped for streamlining, dive plans were being made, buddy checks were being done. Today was the day the students were going on their first deep dive to 35’ ft. As their instructor, I wanted to stress the importance of proper buoyancy and proper ascents. I also encouraged the students to use their skills when needed and boy were they, I saw masks getting cleared, communication between buddies, and even cramps being removed. Eyes were lighting up while we were spotting reef fish, lobsters, eels, lionfish and even an electric eel. When we were exiting the water the students were so full of joy and were giving me hugs. They must have thanked me over 100 times and each time I thought to myself, “and this is why I became an instructor”.
After our second ocean dive for the day, I had to remind the students we still had one final exam to take until they would become PADI Open Water certified. That didn’t faze them, they all passed! After all the paperwork was filled out, students got their temporary certification cards and their photo taken for their hardcopy certification card. It was time to celebrate all their hard work and we did. I had my picture taken with each student and tons of group photos were taken. We all exchanged emails, Facebook, phone numbers, address and more.
So what are the solutions for Haiti’s reefs? Reef Check hopes that these new students will now be able to gather data to show the government the need for Marine Protected Areas in their country. They also hope to educate the fisherman and give them alternative economic activities to make money for their families. This Reef Check team also plans on increasing public awareness of marine issues and create children marine educational programs. All these solutions will hopefully increase employment, food, and biodiversity for Haiti.
If you would like to help my students with protecting Haiti’s reefs you can make a donation to Reef Check or buy the beautiful coffee table book “Haiti from Below”, the proceeds go to the Reef Check Haiti team.
Blog post by SCUBASiren ~Maya~