In Puerto Viejo, scuba diving was once just for tourists, but a centre is training young people with few opportunities to care for the ocean on their doorstep
I put fresh almond leaves in your underwater masks as anti-fogging – a way to avoid using chemicals. You can remove them once in the water, just before diving,” says Salim Vasquez, 14, pushing her dreadlocks away from her mask.
She distributes the equipment to her fellow divers, who are aged between 14 and 24, and Ana María Arenas, a group coordinator. It is 8am on a cloudy Sunday morning in Puerto Viejo, a Jamaican-inspired city in the south of Costa Rica. The young conservationists are preparing to dive into the Caribbean water for their weekly reef monitoring.
Adir Garrido, Maitén Moore, Anumí Sassaroli, Esteban Gallo and Salim, as well as almost two dozen local divers, are part of the Ambassadors of the Sea Community Diving Centre, a non-profit organisation created in 2014 to provide opportunities for young people to do conservation work, such as seabed cleaning, reef monitoring, water pollution analysis, and underwater archaeology.
Here, scuba diving has always been too expensive for locals. Not any more for the youth, who dive with a purpose, María Suárez Toro
“I was one of the four founders with my brothers and my neighbour,” remembers Esteban, 24. Now he is setting up his own business: a mechanical workshop to fix diving equipment. “It’s not easy to be young in Puerto Viejo. We don’t have opportunities, most of my classmates are involved in drug dealing and petty crime. The centre took us out of this context and opened doors in sea protection.”
The idea for the centre came from María Suárez Toro, a Puerto Rican journalist and fisher who arrived in Costa Rica 50 years ago. Her love of the sea started in childhood when she learned to fish, swim and walk almost at the same age. “Here, scuba diving has always been an activity for tourists, too expensive for locals. Not any more for the youth of the centre, who dive with a purpose,” says Suárez.
Supported by the United Nations Office for Project Services (Unops), the centre has so far offered 200 free training courses in open water and rescue diving, underwater archaeology, and coral monitoring to young people. There are some requirements to participate: getting good grades at school, learning to cook a Caribbean meal as a part of cultural preservation, carrying out beach cleaning, becoming a sea ambassador and fully participating in the centre’s activities.
“As sea ambassadors, we bring to the earth what’s hidden under the water,” says Anumí, 18. She has just finished high school and has enrolled for an oceanographic university degree. In the future, she hopes to run a project to protect sharks, her favourite animal. “When I was little, I expressed my frustrations to my grandfather. I complained about the selfishness of people who didn’t want to give up their habits that are detrimental to the planet. Then I got involved in the centre, and it became a family to me.”
As Afro-descendants, taking care of the sea means also discovering the past hidden in the abyss and giving voice to our roots, Maitén Moore, 14
During the pandemic, with schools closed and online lessons not accessible to all, the centre became increasingly important for the young divers. “During the lockdown, when all the activities stopped, we saw more corals and animals than ever: also the seahorses were back,” says Ana María. Through constant coral monitoring, they were able to correct the local misconception that the reef was dead due to pollution.
“Saying that the reef was dead was an excuse for not taking care of the ocean,” she says. “Also, companies took advantage of it and proposed projects of oil exploitation or dock constructions that we stopped over the years. Our constant monitoring showed that the reef was alive.”
“The pandemic teaches us that the reef is not so fragile, it only needs better waters,” says Isaac Baldizón, a marine biologist, who works with the centre.
Today, the team is working fast to avoid the storm looming on the horizon. After a quick 20-metre swim, the reef is under their flippers. Anumí and Ana María analyse the health and whitening of the corals, and Maitén and Salim count the fish, such as the reef cleaner, parrotfish, and the blue-spotted damselfish.
Maitén, 14, and her fellow divers are also studying two wrecks, thought to be linked to the slave trade, that sank many years ago in nearby Cahuita bay.
“As Afro-descendants, taking care of the sea means also discovering the past hidden in the abyss and giving voice to our roots,” says Maitén, who is interested in submarine archaeology.
“The vessels have always been there. Old people considered them as pirate legends,” says Maitén. “In August, Ghana’s Ashanti king came to Puerto Viejo. He did an emotional ritual above the wrecks to honour the memory of enslaved Africans who were shipwrecked off the Caribbean coast more than 300 years ago. I was moved to tears.”
The study of the wrecks, thought by some to be the remains of two Danish ships carrying enslaved people in the early 18th century, will continue next spring. In the meantime, the divers dream of having a new headquarters, Casa del Mar [Sea House], to welcome visitors and children from the community. For the moment, they use Esteban’s patio to unload the equipment, as they are doing today when the tropical storm ends the coral monitoring.
“Casa del Mar will be the place to bring on land the voice of the sea and the stories of our ancestors,” says Anumí. “Our headquarters will be there for the next generations: we dream about an entire community of sea ambassadors.”
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Source; The Guardian
5 Jul 2022