A Virgin Islands' Sea Trek
by Susan Zaluski
"After 2 1/2 weeks of sailing around the Virgin Islands, we were finally here! I was home on the beautiful, cozy, crazy island of Jost Van Dyke. The past couple of weeks had been full of elation, challenges and hard work. I had pushed myself further than I ever had before and had learnt so much about [scuba] diving on a daily basis."
Growing up on the tiny palm-fringed Jost Van Dyke, Lorraine Callwood was constantly enticed by the island's surrounding pool-blue tropical waters, becoming certified as an Open Water Diver as a teenager. Although she was a long-time lover of scuba diving and the underwater world, she reports initially thinking, "getting a high diver certification was out of [her] league." That is until she participated in a dive training program on-board a sailing catamaran with SeaTrek BVI, a group that she describes as providing her with overwhelming support that helped to ease her nervousness, build her confidence, making them feel "like family" after just a few weeks together in the Virgin Islands' waters. Now as a Dive Master (assistant scuba diving instructor) with a plan to become certified as an instructor this summer, the 25-year old native Jost Van Dyke islander reflects on her journal entries from her recent summer experience.
Callwood reports that despite her initial nerves, she wanted to obtain her Dive Master "more than anything she had wanted in a long-time," noting that her drive to complete the rigorous professional-level certification "wasn't just about [her]," she was doing it to be able to lead kids from Jost Van Dyke, which "provided a motivation throughout the entire journey." Lorraine was hoping her certification would help to "pay it forward," encouraging youth to "aim high" with hopes that "one or more of them will become Dive Masters and instructors able to lead the next generation of youth."
Since about 2008, the Jost Van Dykes Preservation Society (JVDPS), a BVI environmental not-for-profit organisation for which Callwood has been helping to coordinate programs, had been offering environmental education programs on Jost Van Dyke. Activities, including nature hikes, talks by visiting scientists at the school, snorkeling clinics, nature drawing classes and bird-watching were part of a wider effort by the non-profit to promote a connection to and stewardship for the natural world among the island's youth. An island with strong fishing and boating traditions, it was not surprising that snorkeling and marine-related activities quickly became highly sought after by Jost Van Dyke school children. As students developed their skills, it became obvious that education programs could provide a platform for some older children (ages 11 and up) to pursue dive training, developing skills that not only promoted stewardship but could support those who might want to pursue careers in the BVI's diving and sailing industries or conservation work. As Callwood notes, "from the coral reefs and beaches that attract tourists to the fish that feed us, the marine environment has so much to do with our lives in the Virgin Islands…kids should be educated about marine life so they can protect and preserve it... Diving allows you to see and learn about the marine [environment] up close. Plus it's a lot of fun too."
In 2011, JVDPS began to launch a new initiative to strengthen its youth marine sciences offerings for local students and to promote dive training and education. A partnership with SeaTrek BVI was born. Every summer since 2003, SeaTrek BVI, a family-owned live aboard teen summer camp has offered two to three week sailing voyages in the BVI (and other tropical locations), where visiting students receive sail and dive training and explore the marine environment and culture of the Virgin Islands through island excursions, guest lectures and service work with local residents aboard sailing catamarans that function as their homes and mobile classrooms. SeaTrek has taught countless sailing courses and dozens of SCUBA divers – inspiring some students to go on to pursue careers in marine sciences, and fostering a love of the marine environment for all participants.
Leaders from both organizations – JVDPS and SeaTrek saw that a partnership could help open doors to new experiences in the Virgin Islands for all their students. A small non-profit agency with limited staff and resources, JVDPS wanted to increase the amount and quality of marine sciences activities available to local youth, while SeaTrek leaders knew that many of their (mostly US-based) participants yearned to learn about the BVI in more depth, and interaction with the local JVD organization and youth could provide that. In preparation for their first summer of collaboration, JVDPS worked to facilitate a group of local high school students' participation in an Open Water Diving Course. Colin and Andrea Aldridge of JVD SCUBA offered support by donating the majority of the costs associated with certifying five students – an act that was a catalyst for the initiative.
With the appropriate skills foundation, the team of young JVD divers was able to participate in activities in cooperation with SeaTrek BVI. This included meeting with biologists and learning about measuring and monitoring the health of coral reefs through hands-on activities and scuba diving, completing marine animal labs and dissections, and tagging sea turtles as part of a BVI Conservation & Fisheries Department turtle monitoring effort. Equally important, the participants also got the opportunity to interact and to just hang out, having fun being kids and learning about one another.
As a young non-profit organization, JVDPS was struggling with finances and resources. Donations of equipment and time began to roll in from SeaTrek owners, staff, and and even students. One Virginia-based SeaTrek BVI student, Jenna Smith, was so impacted by her SeaTrek BVI summer and motivated to see Jost Van Dyke youth scuba diving succeed that she hosted a fundraiser at her school and raised $500 for the JVDPS, which the organisation used towards costs for dive equipment. Another Florida-based SeaTrek parent, Stephanie Don, donated funds to support gear and boat rental during the first summer. Staff from SeaTrek even volunteered on their days off to visit Jost Van Dyke to tag sea turtles with JVDPS and a group of Jost Van Dyke students.
During their second summer of collaboration (2012), SeaTrek and JVDPS continued to improve their delivery of programs, with each organisation supporting one another and their students. Meanwhile, the base of young divers on Jost Van Dyke began to slowly grow. During this time, Callwood started taking on an increased leadership role within JVDPS, and was quickly showing her aptitude as a competent, level-headed scuba diver, which did not go unnoticed by directors of the two organizations. In order to continue to build the skills of the Jost Van Dyke Program throughout the year, JVDPS needed to have a locally-based dive master who could safely and professionally run underwater programs. Ideally, JVDPS would eventually be able to possess the skills and equipment necessary to certify students on its own. SeaTrek and JVDPS Directors approached Callwood to complete her Dive Master course and to begin a path towards becoming a Scuba Instructor.
Callwood's initial nervousness turned into confidence, writing in her journal that her weeks spent with SeaTrek were full of "elation, challenges and hard work" and that she learned to "push [herself] futher than [she ] ever had before," learning "so much about scuba diving on a daily basis." Following completion of her Dive Master course, Callwood was ready to return to her studies at the University of the Virgin Islands, where she is also enrolled as a nursing student. As summer faded and JVDPS was getting ready to run another Open Water Dive Course, with support from two SeaTrek BVI instructors – Chance Ruder and Colin "Farva" Jones, and a new donation of SCUBA equipment from SeaTrek, one nervous 13-year old eyed the dive instruction textbooks with wary eyes. "Man, I want this, but I don't know if I can do it," he said nervously. With the same encouragement that others had shown her, Lorraine Callwood buoyed by the confidence of her Dive Master certification rested a hand on his shoulder. "Yeah, you can," she said without hesitation.