Teach a kid to dive, and they will love the sea for life. That is the basic principle behind our work this year to get more local kids involved with the diving and marine conservation work happening on what will eventually be their island.
In August we kicked off a 5 month program alongside the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources and SSI Thailand, teaching the students first how to SCUBA dive, then how to perform underwater research through the locally designed Ecological Monitoring Program. In the final months of the program the students will also be trained in coral restoration and protection through various locally designed methods. The program is completely free to all Thai or Burmese children 10-18 years old. The goal of this program is to increase local stakeholder capacity and involve the young generation on Koh Tao in the protection and restoration of their local marine environment.
Day one of the program we started off with a briefing on coral reef ecology and the proper Code of Conduct for snorkeling and diving. Next, 21 of the kids joined us for a snorkel around Ao Taa Chaa to see the coral and marine life there. In the afternoon we took just the 11 kids in the diving program for a DSD in the pool with SSI Instructor Matee Srisawat from Phoenix Divers.
On day two we went out to Ao Leuk Bay, which has a nice shallow sand bar heading out from the beach to practice some of the basic skills for the open water course. The kids got through all the skills just fine, and the highlight of the dive was seeing a sting ray and some corals up close. A few of the kids looked perfectly at home in the water, doing flips and blowing bubble rings without even being shown how to do it first. Most heartening was the fact that almost all the kids came back to the boat with some rubbish in their pockets, even though we had not mentioned anything about doing a clean-up.
For week 2 we did 5 dives, and were joined by SSI Instructor P’Nui of Phoenix Divers, and did another three dives at Ao Leuk and Hin Ngam. The kids were not to excited about doing more skills, and kept losing interest, but it was obvious when we started swimming around that they are great divers already. Not only did they have better buoyancy and trim then most of the adults that come through the Open Water Course, but they have no fear, and don’t take themselves too seriously. In fact, much of the time diving they spent playing around and joking with each other, all while maintaining good self-awareness and never contacting the reef. Even poking fun at their instructor, who before the dive told them ‘don’t kick like you are riding a bicycle’ (see video below). At the end of the weekend they all completed and passed their written exams.
In the final week we had a few skills to finish off, but mostly just wanted to let the kids explore, see some new parts of the island, and enjoy being underwater. The first dive was a Japanese Gardens, then we headed over to the playground under the sea, Buoyancy World. Some of the kids had seen the Buoyancy World structures being built a few years back on land, but it was their first time getting to see the end result of the project. They all loved the site, and wanted to go back again the next day. But the next day it got a bit windy, so we went to Tanote Bay to check out the reef balls instead.
By the end of the course, 5 of the 11 kids have completed all the requirements for the SSI Open Water/Junior Open Water course, and the other 6 are going to complete in the next week or two. Next month we will begin the Advanced Course, and the following month will be the Ecological Monitoring Program training. Month 4 will focus on restoration, involving the kids in some coral nursery and artificial reef work (some of them are pros at this already from their science fair project last year). The final month of the program will teach them some skills for coral reef protection, including how to install mooring buoys, coral gardening, and an underwater clean-up.
Although this program centers on marine conservation, the impact of the program is much larger than that. Koh Tao is a small island, and sometimes for teenaged kids there is little to do. Many of the kids end up in self-destructive behaviors like drugs, partying, or racing motorbikes. By giving the kids positive and life enriching activities we hope to foster their sense of learning and determination. These kids are getting entry into one of the most lucrative and important industries on Koh Tao. Hopefully, some of them will carry on with diving, instead of settling for low paid service jobs. We are confident these young divers will be responsible and look towards maintaining sustainable businesses on the island.
See more pictures of each day from our facebook page: