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Mission Ocean - Donating and Diving in Dominica

by Mission Océan 12 Mar 2018 00:45 UTC
Contigo chasing rainbows in Mero Bay © Mission Ocean

You’re never too old to learn something new. I passed my Level 1 diving certificate in Martinique, with some friends who run an dive company from their catamaran in Grande Anse. Whilst Henrique is an experienced Dive Master and put his skills to good use when our first group of scientists joined us in Palma de Mallorca (which you can read about here) , I had dived very little before, and certainly never in such crystal clear waters. I had the time of my life chasing after multi-coloured fish of all sizes, marvelling at glowing coral, turtles and crayfish, and dodging the lionfish and huge black urchins that were lurking on the rocks.

So when we arrived into the broad anchorage of Portsmouth in Northern Dominica and discovered the dive school run by Fabien from his little shed on the beach, we hastily signed up.

Dominica was one of the islands that was worst affected by Hurricane Maria in September 2017. Unlike neighbouring French overseas territories Martinique or Guadeloupe, Dominica is an independent country and as such does not have the support, resources or weight of a wealthy government to back them up. The island was still recovering from the damage done by Hurricane Ericka in 2015 when first Irma then Maria struck, destroying or damaging almost every building still standing.

Bridges were ripped away by flood waters, trees were stripped of their leaves and branches, leaving whole rainforests of bare trunks, and schools were raised to the ground. Building materials are in short supply, with damage to the airport initially causing hindrances to the aid efforts on the ground.

And yet in spite of all of the this, the island has managed to retain its beauty, and the people their dignity and good humour. After a brief and expensive stop overnight on a mooring buoy in Roseau, we first anchored in Mero Beach on the western coast. We were met on the beach by Sandra from Help for Dominica, a charity that we had contacted through Facebook a few weeks previously, and five giggling children from the small town of Castle Bruce, all of whom had lost their homes in the hurricane. We went for a sail together and showed the children how we take plankton samples on board.

Our net came back full of life to inspect down the microscope, but also some strange white fibres which, after some investigation together on board, we identified as artificial fabrics (possibly from wipes that the local water treatment systems cannot deal with, a common problem across the world). Later that afternoon, we met a local farmer who took us to see his land and the crops that he had grown since the hurricane (pumpkins, zucchinis... anything fast growing), and even took us for dinner at his grandmother’s house!

Before we left France, we had worked hard to obtain equipment from superyachts along the Riviera, to be distributed along our route to anyone in need. We had collected some further donations from cruisers in Martinique, and had even gone as far as asking all the laundrettes for their lost property. We were very pleased to be able to donate three dinghies-full of clothes, shoes, medicines, school supplies, fishing gear, toys, masks and snorkels to Help for Dominica, who have been busy distributing them throughout the community in Castle Bruce and Mero ever since.

Later in the week, we visited the town and were able to witness the damage sustained for ourselves. We met a family of five who are still living in a tent, with only a floor and one wall panel of their old house left standing. And yet life goes on, the children were happy and healthy, waiting for building materials to put their lives back together again.

On the day of our dive, we were unsure what to expect underwater after such extensive damage on shore, and Fabien invited us to accompany him to a wreck site that he had not visited since the hurricane.

“The wreck may not even be there anymore,” he warned us, anticipating a potential disappointment. But the small wreck had not moved, and the damage to the reef was minimal. A large palm tree trunk had been tossed across it, and some coral had sustained damage, with small piles of dead branches accumulating in the hollows. Plenty of sea life seemed to have taken shelter within the wreck; a moray eel peered out from the exhaust pipe, and a huge snapper took us by surprise, surging up from the engine compartment.

The lionfish population had also bloomed, with no divers to keep them under control. Fabien spent the morning hunting them, which is allowed under permit in Dominica; normally free of predators, it is impressive to see how fearless these creatures are, sitting and waiting to be speared.

Back on the surface, Fabien grinned and declared that the reef was nowhere near as damaged as he had expected.

“Mother Nature will sort that all out,” he smiled. “That’s what she does best.” In short, Dominica has had a hard time of it lately, and the island is still stitching up its war wounds. But cruisers and tourists should definitely not stop going there; we felt much safer in Portsmouth and Mero Beach than we have elsewhere, and we had everything we needed: provisions, local vegetables (the fruit is still growing), water, gas, wifi (at Smithy’s Bar in Portsmouth), and a very warm welcome.

The Portsmouth Association of Yacht Services manages the mooring buoys in Portsmouth, and offer a whole host of activities for crew, as well as taxis to and from the shore, weekly barbecues and a security service at night. We had the pleasant surprise of arriving in the middle of Yacht Appreciation Week, a 7-day event organised by PAYS and aimed at encouraging cruisers to return to Dominica; we were able to sample all these activities at reasonable rates.

There are plenty of reconstruction projects in Dominica that cruisers can get involved in if you want to help out, especially if you have your own tools and a few boxes of nails to share. Alternatively, you can support the Dominican economy by simply going there and spending a bit of cash: buy beers, rum punch and local fish, go on tours and use public transport. We walked up the Indian River in Portsmouth and came across some of the most beautiful vegetation that we have seen in the Caribbean.

It is terrifying to think that the island could be hit by another hurricane as early as August this year, and the economy and people need all the help that they can get to ensure that they are prepared, otherwise the loss of life could be much higher in Dominica in 2018. So if this lush, green island is not on your Caribbean schedule, and you are planning to be anywhere nearby, why not make a stop? And if you can bring some plywood, nails or tools to donate, then the more the better.

Mission Ocean is proud to be supported by: Boero, Doyle Sails Palma, Rotary District 1730, Navigair, Octomarine, Battery World Service, Victron Energy, Monaco Marine, Aquatabs, Spade Anchors, Plastimo, Furuno France, Pejout Marine Services, Lyvio, Storm Bird, Aethic, Corsica Yacht Services, Astrolabe Expeditions, Asociacion Ondine, AGL Marine, and Sail-Worldcruising.com

Mission Ocean is Laura Beard and Henrique Agostinho. Their three year plus mission is to share their love and respect for the ocean with others, through education and scientific research. Neither is a stranger to the water, so they have combined all their skills and passions in this bold, courageous and inspiring project. Sail-Worldcruising.com is delighted to be with them for the journey of their lifetime. You can also find out more on their Facebook page: Mission Océan

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