It has been an incredible year of adventure for me. I casually brush off Chris’ comment that I’ve been gone half the year, but counting the months I realize he’s right. I am just now returning home to Hawaii from my recent trip to Belize. Same place I started last year, January 2013.
It was my third year returning to work at Isla Marisol. The prior year the Lionfish population had exploded. It wasn’t just a headline reporting on the state of the Caribbean, it was local, on the very reef that I dove. So I decided to organize a group trip to Belize that focused on Lionfish behavior, eradication and culinary potential. It went great! the following guests that came diving the next few weeks joined the project and helped me develop a mini study on Lionfish stomach content. It really showed me the potential for conservation tourism. People wanted to go on vacation and get involved in a cause, and learn about the local issues. This is a concept that continues to motivate me.
When I returned to Hawaii I was immediately approached by a friend and fellow SCUBA instructor about my clean up dives. She wanted to start a Non-Profit that revolved around cleaning up the ocean. Gracie Clark and I plunged into the logistics of creating a dive community that was educated about local marine issues and worked to preserve the environment through clean up dives and consumer responsibility. Through the help of my dear departed friend Tom Fagan, who acted as our BBQ chef, editor, and Attorney we became recognized by the state of Hawaii as Trees To Seas Inc. In the following months Trees To Seas hosted a number of successful clean up dives. We initiated a program, “Certs for a Cause” where students achieved their Open Water Certifications with an emphasis on ocean awareness. The proceeds went toward Trees To Seas and it’s mission to teach conservation through participation. We miss Tom dearly and couldn’t have done it with out him.
In July I flew to the British Virgin Islands where I worked for another Non-Profit that was based out of Charleston, SC. Here students were trained in Open Water, and then learned about Marine Biology. Each student carried out an experiment on the reef and presented their findings to the class. It was my second year participating in this program, and working with Phil Dustan, a professor and Coral Reef Biologist at the College of Charleston. Through this connection we came up with some other projects that would further ocean awareness and responsible living.
In October Phil and I met again, this time in Discovery Bay, Jamaica. No students accompanied us. We were on a serious scientific exploration to re-document the reef he had written his dissertation on back in 1973. This was the same reef he had brought Jacques Cousteau and the Calypso to in 1976 and filmed “Mysteries of the Hidden Deep”. A once incredibly diverse coral community, we found that the reef had lost roughly 95% of all coral cover in just 35 years. It was now an algae field slowly overgrowing the melting coral skeletons. The even more alarming situation we found was the local fisherman, and towns people living in Discovery Bay had no idea the treasure they had lost. We started asking around and showing before and after pictures to community organizers, and committee members who were shocked at the discrepancies between the years
1973, and 2013. Our response to the trip was there needed to be further studies that might lead to stricter regulations on sewage treatment from near by hotels and possibly turn the whole bay into a marine park. Through our contact with the community we observed the need for an ocean center where people could come learn about the reef, participate in it’s rehabilitation and learn to live in a way that nurtured it’s growth. In the long run, this type of center could generate funds in the form of conservation tourism. As locals become trained to bring guests out to the reef, they may find more value in protecting the reef.
Between November and December Phil and I worked hard to put together a group trip to Belize. I also started a fund raiser campaign with Gracie to raise money for Trees to Seas, so we could get materials for our students and volunteers. In the middle of all this organizing I applied for a job at the University of Hawaii to be their Dive Safety Technician. Essentially working with their Assistant Dive Safety Officer to teach their Scientific Diver course. In November I was Offered the Job, In the first week of December Trees To Seas had raised over $1000 and in the second week in December I was on a plane to Belize. A bit stressed out about the projects I left behind, I was relieved to land in a country I consider a second home. I was greeted by old friends and familiar faces. When Phil arrived with the students, I could see the excitement in their smiles. They were a lively bunch who rose to the challenges set before them. They all pushed themselves to become advanced certified divers, and simultaneously become familiar with coral behavior and function. A hand full of them also were integral in my continued Lionfish project and became Lionfish experts. I am so proud of how far everyone had come, and how open they were to the Belizean culture.
So here I am, at the airport in San Francisco, waiting to return home to Oahu. I am excited to start my new job, see my sweet dog and rejoin Chris for another exciting year. My goals for 2014 are to create a curriculum for Trees To Seas and expand our volunteer base. I want to establish an urchin experiment in Jamaica that will look at reef self-restoration, and then bring the successful protocol to Belize. I also want to put in the first plans to build a community center for Discovery Bay.
My final goal and joy would be to through a huge party in my home town, Woodacre. My parents house, the one I grew up in was built in 1914, so this year 2014 is it’s 100 year anniversary. Wheeler’s are gonna raise the roof!!