Thursday, June 20, 2024

Conservation Highlight – San Pedro Instructors Certify Punta Gorda Youths as PADI Open Water Divers


Submitted by Valentine Rosado

Editor’s Note: Valentine Rosado is a biodiversity scientist and diving instructor. He runs a private consulting firm focused on the environment and is the founding director of Follow him @ValentineRosado. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles at The San Pedro Sun.


Ched Cabral enlists partners and friends to travel to his hometown in hopes of inspiring a new generation of divers and marine professionals. He is the managing owner of Reef Adventures Dive Shop and a board member of Access to Opportunity.

San Pedro is his home and place of business. But, like most of us who decided to make this beautiful place our home, he still loves his birthplace and feels a need to share his success with those back home. I learned a lot from this experience, and I hope it inspires others that have made their home: away from home.

He tells me that about 24 years ago, as a Punta Gorda native in the southern Toledo District of Belize, he had the opportunity to be certified as a scuba diver. It was a sponsored course that opened a lot of options for him. He thought about returning the favor a long time ago, but it felt like the right time this year. He also got funding support from Access to Opportunity (a US-based non-profit) and TIDE (co-manager of the Port Honduras Marine Reserve). The pieces were coming together, but there was still the need to assemble a team to execute the vision.

As a dive manager and 12-year volunteer for Kids in Action, Ched carried out dive courses for dozens of San Pedro youths. In addition, every summer, he holds a summer camp teaching kids about the marine environment. So, he has plenty of experience running community programs and knows the right people. It took several months to plan, but he secured the participation from several island instructors, including Chris Matura, Enes Ramirez, and Everette Anderson. He also enlisted fellow Punta Gorda (PG) natives: David Cal, Philip Vernon, Gene Lopez, and Gene Lopez Jr. as assistants.

Awareness of the marine environment is a top priority for Ched. Many people live in Belize’s coastal communities but never get to explore the underwater world. The target was to certify 19 divers from the PG area. If they experience the diving world, they will become ambassadors of environmental protection.

Punta Gorda is far from the diving activities of the leading tourism destinations. This makes access to dive instructors and equipment very limited. However, TIDE has been raising awareness of the marine environment for quite some time— under the leadership of Celia Mahung and her talented staff. Ched believes that the opportunity and funding to get more people diving was just not there yet. Hence, the partnership between Access to Opportunity and TIDE was the missing link that made it all come together.

“I wish PG was closer,” he Cheb. He has been living in San Pedro for many years, but this trip back home in September had an added difficulty. The volunteers had to pack and track loads of scuba equipment from San Pedro all the way to Punta Gorda. The instructors also had to figure out how to successfully implement a training course in a setting that is worlds apart from the dive destination they navigate every day.

One of the difficulties was finding clear water and suitable dive sites for training. It took some time, but everyone is now fully aware of what Punta Gorda offers and the distance to the best dive sites. The new and the seasoned divers got to dive Abalone Caye, the Snake Cayes, and the Sapodilla range. Some dive sites they would probably never dive again, but they were all a unique experience. The highlight of the adventure was diving the literal end of the barrier reef system, a site that has the most tunicates (a marine invertebrate animal) I’ve seen in quite a while. The instructors were satisfied that the new divers were able to experience what they share with visitors every day.

Ched’s parting message was, “I now know how to make the experience better. The main thing that holds anything back is funding. But I am committed to doing it again and will try to make it an annual thing. I got a similar opportunity 24 years ago, which opened a lot of opportunities for me. Maybe this will open opportunities for these youths. Maybe some of them open their own dive shop like me. At least we know that we gave them a start, and I hope that it inspires them.”

And it did. I had the opportunity to hear from many youths who are now certified as PADI Open Water Divers. Olga is from Belize’s southernmost village and heard about the training on the radio. As a youth from Barranco, she wants to become a marine biologist in the future. Her words exactly were, “This opportunity gives me the first steppingstone, and I want others to know that if an opportunity like this shows up: Just grab it. Don’t be afraid. Take it!”

Ched would like to thank all his friends for believing in this project and making it a reality. Special thanks also go to the sponsors and partners: Access to Opportunity, TIDE, Summit Foundation, PADI, and DAN World.


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