By Nikole Ordway
I (Nikole) am not only a PADI Instructor, but also a Reef Check Course Director which was given an opportunity to go to Haiti to teach 13 students the PADI Open Water Diver course. These students are comprised of school teachers and students from the university in Haiti studying Biology. Each student has been selected to become Haiti’s first Reef Check Eco Diver team.
If you are not familiar with Reef Check, you should know that Reef Check does work worldwide in about 90 countries. Reef Check is a global monitoring coral reef survey checking the health of the fish, inverts, corals, and substrate of the reef. We can use this data as a baseline or snapshot of what the reefs look like now....and the information can be used to create Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) or stop coastal projects from destroying our reefs.
Reef Check Eco Diver course is designed to take non-scientific divers into the classroom and out on the ocean to learn about reefs and to become certified to conduct scientific Reef Check surveys. This team from Haiti will be the first to run Reef Check surveys to try and protect what little corals and fish they have left. In Haiti, the main reason coral reefs are not as abundant is due to overfishing. All the big fish are gone and the local fisherman are now taking and wiping out smaller fish populations, like parrotfish and grunts.
Before I went to Haiti, the students learned to swim and snorkel over the summer with Reef Check Headquarters. With their skills getting better it was time to introduce them to scuba…and boy did their eyes open! In Haiti, the only people who scuba are foreigners not locals, so what an opportunity this was for locals to learn to scuba dive. Carrying the scuba cylinders and equipment around the town of Delmas became quite of interest to the locals walking by because most had never seen these items before.
The class and pool training went so well, that I was excited to get these students into the ocean. I was excited to open up their eyes to the creatures that live underneath the water. In return my students wanted to open my eyes up to what the city of Delmas has to offer and how the people of Haiti live and socialize.
One of my students, Alexandra, took me into the town to check out the local markets. Women carry fruits and veggies from the high mountains down every morning to sell on the street. People also sell clothes and everyday items and I learned to bargain them for things. A big misconception about the Haiti people is that they might target Americans but they are all really friendly people. After the street markets we met up with the group to get ready for the ocean dives which we would need to drive an hour to get to the water.
We headed out to stay at a beach house in Troubaguette. Wow what a beautiful coastline, too bad there are no dive centers out here. We got our tanks from a local guy who has a compressor, couple sets of gear, and he takes certified divers to the reefs of the Arcadin Islands. There are nice beach houses out here and there is plenty of coral life to dive on. But one thing I noticed is that all the fish were small because the fishermen have out fished the reef.
We saw coral banned shrimp, a spotted moray eel, puffer fish, lots of grunts and we found big patches of coral rocks with big sea fans.
The visibility is endless when the wind is right and the shore looks like a lake as well. We had one day that the waves had picked up and the visibility was about 40 feet. I also noticed that after we had the wave action it stirred up the ocean and trash from the town was up on the shore or out in the water. My guess is most of the trash is from the locals but also it could be coming from other countries, like the US. So we all need to do our part to make sure our trash ends up in the right place.
The students got ready for the first dives by setting up their gear and I split the group in half. While I worked with one group in the ocean the rest were studying for the final exam. All these students are very smart because they attend the local universities to study biology, engineering, architecture, and one student, Jessika, is in medical school. Their first dives were interesting 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. So second dive I really stressed them using the buddy team system, and they were great students after that!
A challenge that we had was the equipment they were using. We rented the equipment from the local dive guy and I found that most of the BCDs were way too big for these skinny students plus these BCDs and the regulators were giving us some problems too. We hope to in the future get equipment donated for this Reef Check Haiti team so that they can have nice gear and they can make sure its stays in good shape.
Second day of the training dives went so well because the students were very good at getting themselves ready for the dives and some would even set up my gear too! Their buoyancy skills also became much better on this second day, so I introduced compass skills to them. I had them practice using their compass on land before we went to the sea for this skill. I also taught them about using natural navigation and talked to them about proper dive conditions. I explained that they need to make good judgment by accessing 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.
Third day at the beach house the students took their final exam, and all 13 students passed! After paperwork was finished we celebrated and they all got their temporary certification cards. Each student wanted their photo taken with me so that they would remember the opportunity and fun they had during their training. One of the students, John Phillipe, gave me three friendship bracelets to thank me for his training.
What a rewarding experience for a diver instructor and I only hope that I can do this in other places, but also be able to come back and see how this Reef Check Haiti team is doing!
To join Reef Check Florida…contact Force-E Dive Centers or Nikole Ordway (firstname.lastname@example.org)…Next Reef Check Eco Diver training is set for May 2012!