By Nikole Ordway, Reef Check EcoDiver Course Director, Ft Lauderdale, Florida
During the first week of April, my position as a Reef Check Course Director led me from Florida to Haiti to teach 13 students the PADI Open Water Diver course. These students are comprised of Haitian school teachers and university students studying diverse subjects such as agronomy, architecture, medicine and business. Each student was selected from 70 original applicants to become part of Haiti’s first Reef Check EcoDiver team.
The Reef Check EcoDiver course includes both classroom and field sessions and is designed to train non-scientists to become certified to conduct scientific Reef Check surveys. The team from Haiti will run Reef Check surveys to track corals, invertebrates and fish. In Haiti, the main reason coral reefs are suffering is due to overfishing. All the big fish are gone and the local fishermen are now taking and wiping out smaller fish populations, like parrotfish and grunts, in order to make a living.
Before I went to Haiti, the students had already learned to swim and snorkel with Reef Check last summer (check out the video from the New York Times). With their skills getting better, it was time to introduce them to scuba…and boy did their eyes open! In Haiti, most divers are foreigners, so what an opportunity this was for locals to learn to scuba dive.
For the pool training we were based in downtown Port au Prince. Carrying the scuba cylinders and equipment around was quite a spectacle for locals walking by because most had never seen these items before.
With the help of Reef Check’s Director, Dr. Gregor Hodgson, Research Assistant EJ Beucler, and RC Haiti Coordinator Erika Pierre-Louis, the class and pool trainings went very well. Communication was a challenge because, while most of the students understand some English, they speak French or Creole a whole lot better. What did surprise me was their confidence with their water skills. They enjoyed learning about the equipment, clearing regulators and masks, and controlling their buoyancy…it seemed easy for them. I was excited to get these students into the ocean and to open up their eyes to the creatures that live underneath the water. But first, my students wanted to open my eyes up to what the city of Port au Prince had to offer and how the people of Haiti live and socialize.
One of my students, Alexandra, took me into town to check out the local markets. Women carry fruits and veggies on their heads from the high mountains every morning to sell on the street. People also sell clothes and everyday items. Bargaining is expected so I learned to bargain for purchases. After navigating the street markets, we rejoined the group to get ready for the ocean dives, an hour’s drive away.
We headed out to a lovely beach house located at Trou Baguette, where we had easy access to the water. Just in front, there are some patch reefs with plenty of coral life to dive on. One thing I noticed is that all the fish were small because the fishermen have fished out the reef using nets, spears, and traps. We did see banded coral shrimp, a spotted moray eel, puffer fish, lots of grunts and we found big patches of coral rocks with large sea fans. The visibility was unlimited when the wind was right. We had one day when the waves picked up and visibility was reduced to about 40 feet. I noticed that the wave action stirred up the ocean, and plastic trash from the town was in the water and washing up on shore.
The students’ first dives were exciting because they wanted to swim all over the reef to check it out…so I really had to work hard to keep them with me. For the second dive I reminded them about the importance of the buddy team system, and they were great students after that! The second day of training dives went very well — the students were very good at getting themselves ready for the dives, helping each other, and some would even set up my gear too! Their buoyancy skills also became much better. We discussed evaluating ocean conditions, and the need to make good judgments about the ocean, the equipment, and who they are diving with because the closest hospital is over an hour away and the nearest decompression chamber is in the Dominican Republic.
On the last day the students took their final exam, and all 13 students passed! What a rewarding experience for a dive instructor and I only hope that I can do this in other places. I look forward to returning to Haiti to see how this Reef Check Haiti team is doing!
Do you want to learn to dive or become a Reef Check EcoDiver? Contact Nikole in Ft. Lauderdale at Force-E Dive Centers. Her next EcoDiver training is set for May 2012! Reef Check would like to thank our hosts in Haiti Josiane, John and Chantel for use of her beach house, as well as TUSA for their donation of dive gear.