June 12, 2013

Reef Check Haiti’s 2nd EcoDiver Team Learns to Dive

\"\"By Maya Shoup, PADI Instructor

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 became a PADI instructor. Not only to make a difference in an individual’s life, but to also raise awareness about our ocean and its conservation….to make a change!

Haiti’s coral reefs and fish populations have been on a dramatic decline over the years due to overfishing. Local fishermen can no longer find big fish to catch so are now targeting smaller fish like parrotfish, snappers, grunts and more. These fish are all that’s left due to overfishing and the lack of fishing regulations and marine protected areas- the reefs of Haiti are under threat of extinction. As Reef Check builds their EcoDiver teams in Haiti, they are also building awareness about the importance of restoring, replenishing and protecting what little coral and fish they have left.

With over 300 applicants wishing to become EcoDivers in Cape Haitien, Reef Check’s team had some work to do to pick the most suitable 15 candidates who could learn to swim, snorkel and ultimately have a chance of passing their PADI Open Water course. Before I arrived in Haiti to teach their SCUBA course, these 15 students had successfully learned 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 lifetime,” according to the students.

When I 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 EcoDivers and helping conserve their oceans made our English-Creole-French language barrier a little less of a challenge for me (that and the help of Reef Check’s staff who worked as amazing translators).

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 had been reading the Open Water Manual so 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 have the skills- but, do they really know the reasoning behind learning the skills…so time for the knowledge review and quiz!”  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 students’ expressions when they first submersed themselves underwater in the big blue ocean. As I saw the excitement of my students growing, I had to remind them to keep an eye on their buddy and gauges at all times. As we 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 Labadee for us. We had nice calm seas so we were able to move through our skills and all the students enjoyed 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 placed underwater to attract fish.
By our second day in the ocean, the students’ skills came together during dives 3 and 4. Gear was getting assembled properly, gauges were being clipped to streamline, dive plans were being made, buddy checks were being done. The students were allowed to dive to 35ft (10m). 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 they were amazing! 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, and lionfish. 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.”
Even better, they all studied hard and they all passed their PADI exams! Imagine none of these 15 students knew how to swim just four months before. It was time to celebrate all their hard work and we did! We took tons of photos, exchanged emails, Facebook, phone numbers, addresses and more. While I felt sad to leave my new friends in Haiti, I was so proud of what they accomplished.
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 fishermen and give them alternative economic activities to make money for their families. This Reef Check team also plans on increasing public awareness about marine issues and create children’s marine educational programs. All these solutions will hopefully increase employment, food, and biodiversity for Haiti.

Note: Reef Check would like to thank our sponsors for the Haiti program – the USAID Office of Transition Initiatives, MacArthur Foundation, Red Empress, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, Einar Madsen, Mt Joli Hotel, Paul Archibald.
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