30 old tires, unimaginable lengths of fishing line and even a porn DVD or two. These were just some of the finds when Suzy Pinnell and her partner Mark opened The Dive Bus in Curacao, 13 years ago. Now with the help of locals, divers and other operators, they're helping to create an island community that is taking charge of their conservation problems.
Tell us about your passion for ocean conservation.
We’re PADI dive instructors who started a dive shop in Curacao 13 years ago. Our passion for conservation began when we first discovered a seldom-dived reef, just off the beach where we later opened our first tiny little shop.
While it was brimming with corals, sponges and marine life, it was covered in trash, new and ancient, and strangled with miles of fishing line. We began the massive job of cleaning it all up in 2005, removing at least 30 old tires on one cleanup dive, and unimaginable lengths of fishing line. It was a massive challenge over a massive area - especially when a close encounter with a hurricane uncovered even more, just when we thought we were winning.
Since then, and to this day, hundreds (probably thousands) of our divers have played their part in keeping the reef clean and beautiful with us on every dive we make (not only cleanups) - even though they’re here on vacation. Love it!
Why and when did you get involved with Project AWARE?
We got involved with Project AWARE in 2005 when we first started cleaning up our house reef, mostly to ensure that we weren’t doing more harm than good when it came to removing debris that had been there so long that it had effectively become an artificial reef, supporting marine life.
At the same time, we began arranging cleanups on other reefs that needed help, often in conjunction with other Curacao dive shops.
Our dive center has dive buses instead of dive boats, with heaps of Project AWARE info on board so our divers can learn how to take care of the ocean and get involved, on the journey to and from their dives.
Last year we became 100% AWARE, adopted our dive site and began to run Dive Against Debris specialty courses.
What are some issues that are affecting your local dive site or favorite underwater areas?
Curacao is one of the best shore diving locations in the world because the reefs are as close to shore as you can throw a stone.
Or a bottle or a can. Or discarded clothes. Or even your boyfriend’s porn DVD collection (found on a highly memorable PADI Naturalist Specialty dive!)
Here it’s considered good luck to “give” something to the ocean – ocean then gives something back to you. A difficult mindset to change…
Various tropical storms have also caused damage over the years we’ve been here, overturning corals and unearthing buried fishing line and more trash. We’ve mostly managed to stay on top of this, often with help from our divers.
Also, like most Caribbean islands, fishing has been a way of life here for generations. It’s a well-respected profession, and the sturdy wooden fishing boats are proudly passed through generations of fishermen. While the professionals head out in their boats daily, come hell or high water, at the weekends the have-a-go’s and dads show sons how to catch dinner. So discarded, broken and entangled fishing line remains a problem (although a significantly smaller one than 15 years ago).
Anchor damage is the most significant problem. We’ve seen many coral heads smashed to pieces as a result, which is heartbreaking to see. The coastguard does respond to calls when this happens and can impose fines, but that doesn’t repair the damage or prevent it happening. In spite of the reef being such a popular fishing area, mooring buoys are few and far between, as is funding to install them.
What Project AWARE programs have you participated in? Tell us about your work!
Besides adopting “our” reef last year, we run Dive Against Debris at many other reefs. At the same time, we became a 100% AWARE dive center, and started teaching Dive Against Debris shortly afterward.
We achieved the PADI Green Star award for efforts to re-use, reduce and recycle, which is a little tricky on a Caribbean island with limited choices and opportunities.
We work with and contribute to a local company (Greenforce) for aluminum and plastics recycling bins at the dive shop. We use rechargeable batteries wherever possible, flashlights for example and our divers take used, regular batteries home with them for proper disposal, so they don’t end up in our landfill. We have as little single-use plastic as practical and find as many ways to re-use as possible.
Our divers notice, appreciate and use these facilities, which is awesome.
What has been the highlight of your Project AWARE experience?
Seeing the recovery of our gorgeous house reef, although the downside is that’s now one of the most popular and used dive sites in Curacao.
Also the comments we get from our cleanup divers – and regular divers – is really rewarding. They seem to love that they had the opportunity to make a difference.
We’re currently trying to encourage other Curacao dive centers to adopt a reef so together our community can protect more Curacao reefs from harm and keep them healthy. Several are already on board, fingers crossed for more to follow!
What is the most important thing you tell others about Project AWARE?
That Project AWARE is a small, nonprofit organization comprised of a small, highly dedicated team of people spread across the world, relying hugely on external support for grassroots action.
Project AWARE drives others to make a massive difference.
There’s a perception that Project AWARE is part of PADI and therefore a large and well-funded organization. When we explain that Project AWARE is a separate nonprofit, they’re astonished – and then impressed – and, we think, more motivated to support our Project AWARE actions, join in and make a difference.