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Education Through Scuba Diving in the Cook Islands

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We sat down with PADI Master Instructor and owner of PADI 5 Star Instructor Development Centre, Dive Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, Neil Davison to discuss an amazing local initiative educating Rarotonga indigenous youth about the environment and teaching them to dive.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey with PADI?

I first experienced scuba diving in the late 1980’s on a try dive. It’s something I had dreamed of since seeing Jacques Cousteau on TV as a child but could never afford to do. I managed to get on to a PADI Open Water Diver course in the UK, experiencing cold waters of inland quarries and lakes as my training ground. I have been fortunate enough to experience destinations such as the Red Sea in Egypt and the Maldives, where I developed my taste for reefs and warm water diving. After completing my training in the UK, I subsequently became a Dive Centre owner and progressed through PADI Staff Instructor to PADI Master Instructor & Emergency First Response Instructor Trainer. In 2018, after searching for the right home within the South Pacific, Rarotonga became my home and I purchased Dive Rarotonga.

What is Korero O Te Orau (KOTO) organization primarily responsible for and what motivated you to start this program alongside them?

Korero O Te Orau (KOTO) is a Rarotonga based non-governmental organisation (NGO) focused on life skills training for local indigenous youth (aged 13-20). Chaired by Dr. Teina Rongo, doctor of Marine Biology, KOTO’s primary focus is to equip youth with cultural and historical knowledge of Rarotonga, as well as educating them on the land and marine environments of the island.

In January 2020, KOTO approached us to see if we could assist with dive training for their students. We decided that we could part fund this program alongside KOTO and partially by PADI, who supported us via the PADI Scholarship program. This support was generously given and after our first eight students completed their courses, we decided to continue training alongside KOTO. To date, we have certified 68 Students in PADI courses ranging from the Skin Diver course, Open Water Diver course, Advanced Open Water Diver course, Rescue Diver course and Emergency First Response.

Why do you think it’s important for indigenous kids to seek adventure through diving?

The kids who grow up on an island like Rarotonga, or any of the Cook Islands for that matter, are constantly surrounded by the environment, both land and marine. Learning to dive gives these kids an intimate knowledge of the marine ecosystem and a greater appreciation of their ancestral home. Additionally, being able to scuba dive gives them another way to access the reef – an amazing ability when living in an island nation.

Are you aware of any other indigenous kids who have learned to scuba dive and gone on to work in the industry later in life?

The KOTO students have an existing interest in the marine environment which could be influenced by growing up on an island, surrounded by crystal clear waters and vibrant coral reefs. This interest, reinforced by KOTO and Dr. Teina Rongo, is a contributing factor to the majority of our first students undertaking further education in Marine based courses. Learning to scuba dive and completing the KOTO course gives these students a distinct advantage when enrolling in further education as diving is one essential skill they already have under their belt.

Is there a pathway for the kids to continue their dive education?

Most definitely! Once students in the program have completed their mainstream education and turned 18, our intention is to enrol them in the PADI Divemaster course, provided they return to Rarotonga. For those students who continue their professional dive education and become PADI Open Water Scuba Instructors and beyond, there are numerous employment opportunities for them here in Rarotonga.

What impact do you think this will have on the diving community and the community at large on Rarotonga?

More and more people on Rarotonga are taking advantage of our incredible reef so diving is becoming more widespread among both the local and expat communities. We now have a good base of qualified local divers we take out regularly. Dive Rarotonga’s actions have also proved very popular within the wider community, which has of course been excellent publicity for us here on the island.

What’s next?

We (Dive Rarotonga) have our own coral restoration project that sits off the coast in about 8 metres/26 feet of water. I’ve written five PADI Distinctive Specialty courses covering everything from surveying the reef to transplanting coral.

We are also running a secondary program for local kids where we will be taking them on their PADI Open Water Diver course. I am hoping that this will evolve into the kids continuing their diving adventure by enrolling the group in the PADI Advanced Open Water Diver course, PADI Rescue Diver course and additional PADI Specialty courses. I hope to be able to generate interest from these kids to join the specialty courses to learn more about the practicalities of working on their reef.

Beyond that, we’ll continue to support new intakes of local students and promote education here from entry level through to instructor.

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