The sun was setting over Atauro island in Timor-Leste, a paradise of biodiversity where Blue Ventures has been working since 2016. Today was no ordinary evening, and the air hung heavy with anticipation as people arrived from the nearby villages of Beloi and Biqueli, eager for the upcoming ceremony.
The excited buzz of conversation from the crowd died down as Blue Ventures Conservation Officer, Jenny House, started the ceremony, which culminated in Amos and Mima being presented to their communities for the first time as PADI Divemasters.
From conversations with the Biqueli community and from the heartfelt and passionate speeches delivered by the friends and family of Amos and Mima, I knew how incredibly proud they were of this achievement. They are only the second and third Timorese PADI Divemasters in the whole country, and Mima is the first woman to reach the milestone, not to mention the first female scuba diver on Atauro.
Together they have achieved something that no one on Atauro thought was possible, and there is now an increasing belief that just because something is difficult, it doesn’t mean you can’t do it.
I arrived on Atauro in January 2017 as Blue Ventures’ new Dive Manager, and one of my responsibilities was to train our two Dive and Science Assistants, Amos Da Costa and Jemima Gomes (Mima), into Divemasters.
Despite being very keen to learn, neither Amos nor Mima had much of an understanding of what the Divemaster course entailed, and at first they were pretty overwhelmed by how much work they’d have to do. I quickly realised this wasn’t going to be a straightforward task, and removing some of the barriers was going to take time and effort.
English is their fourth language, after Tetun, Bahasa and Rasua, and the Divemaster manual is full of scientific terminology that requires knowledge of human physiology and physics. In addition, Mima couldn’t lift a dive tank by herself, or swim against strong currents.
“When I was young I never learnt English, so reading this kind of language was a first for me. I found it very hard, and the spelling was difficult too.” – Amos
During the training we practiced theory every afternoon of every day and, to help overcome the language barrier, I incorporated different teaching styles into the sessions. Pictures, stories and hands-on experiences were often really effective, especially where they related to daily life on Atauro.
On top of the theory, we went swimming every day and worked out three times a week to build the physical strength needed for diving in challenging conditions. We also worked on self confidence and overcoming nerves, as Mima in particular was initially quite fearful about some of the underwater tests such as sharing a regulator or exchanging gear underwater.
The early days were often difficult or frustrating, for them and me, but they were also without a doubt the highlight of my career. The feeling of success when we cracked a challenging concept like decompression theory or nailed an underwater exercise was so rewarding, and we quickly became very close and supportive of each other. They are two of the most active and engaged students I’ve ever taught, eager to learn, soaking up information like a sponge even when it was hard.
Having two dive professionals able to collect vital ecological data and lead teams of marine conservation volunteers was a goal in itself, but there were also broader aims to training Amos and Mima. Importantly, they have demonstrated to Atauro’s communities that young people and women can become Divemasters, and that it’s possible to work on the reef without having to take from it.
Both Amos and Mima come from fishing families, and started fishing themselves from as young as six years old. They intimately know how important fishing is for their communities, both as a food source and a cultural identity, but they have also learnt about reef ecology and conservation during their time with Blue Ventures.
This combination of background, skills and knowledge gives Amos and Mima an authentic voice and role in their communities, both in terms of tourism and conservation. They are now both certified Reef Check EcoDivers as well as Divemasters, taking leadership roles in volunteer surveys and community-led conservation activities.
My father and his father were fishermen. The sea fed their children and provided a living, but this way of life is no longer possible. We need to prepare for a new future by establishing ways to protect and promote our marine resources. I’m happy to have the opportunity to work in the sea with Blue Ventures and to help conserve Atauro’s wildlife and habitats, and I look forward to sharing my skills and knowledge with Atauro’s younger generations.” – Amos
In the next couple of weeks, Mima (and Jenny) will be presenting conservation data and marine ecology to her community, and she has previously presented to community leaders on the potential of Tara Bandu – traditional locally managed marine areas. Her motivation has also inspired her friends to participate in a community-based seagrass monitoring programme.
Like many people from Atauro, I have been going to the sea since I began walking. Scuba diving and learning to identify fish, coral and other species has been a wonderful new experience. It’s important that our communities know about the marine habitats around Atauro and understand the importance of conservation, so we can better protect our marine resources for the future” – Mima
Amos and Mima are both inspiring ocean advocates and role models for young people on Atauro, and I couldn’t be more proud of them. I can’t wait to see what’s next in their journeys. Both have mentioned that maybe they could become scuba instructors too one day. I’d love that.
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