Ladner Watler is retiring as Chief Marine Parks Enforcement Officer effective 14 October.
Veteran civil servant Mr. Kearney Gomez, who hired Ladner Watler for the job back in 1986, said ‘he is to marine parks what Bob Soto is to scuba diving – they are both legends.’
‘Physically and mentally I’m still there. I can still do the job, but it requires being alert all the time and I’m ready to step back. I want to lie back in a hammock for a while and do some more diving and snorkelling’
No one is really sure that Ladner will be able to stop looking out to sea for poachers and people to rescue.
He is programmed to do it.
It is well known that he never turns his police radio off; he listens 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Over the years he has been involved in numerous life saving rescues and following the passage of the Marine Parks Law in 1986, he worked as the only Marine Enforcement officer in the Cayman Islands for 16 years.
In the early days he even used his own equipment to do the job.
‘I wore out two boats and eventually they gave me a 17 foot Boston Whaler, which I still use as my rescue boat.
‘My brother Donnie and I used to spearfish and when the laws came into effect, there were a lot of people that disregarded the laws and continued to abuse the marine life without any consequences,’ he said.
Mr. Watler decided he wanted to do something about it.
At the time he was working for Special Branch in the Cayman Police Force, he had been recognised by the Queen and cited by his superintendent for bravery in the course of duty.
He arranged a meeting with then Principal Secretary Kearney Gomez, Governor Lloyd, Sir Vassel Johnson and the commissioner of police and they agreed to create the post in Marine Enforcement.
Mr. Watler was subsequently seconded to the Ministry of Environment.
‘We in the ministry considered his secondment a major thrust to the marine parks movement,’ said Mr. Gomez. ‘Ladner can be credited with bringing the meaning of marine parks to the public.’
As Mr. Ladner explains, ‘it was not easy in the early days. People thought they had a right to the marine life regardless of how much or from where and they assumed there was no end to it. Some people were very aggressive.’
He said the situation began turning around after policing it in an educational way for a number of years and instilling in the people the need to preserve and save some of it for the future.
‘It is all we really have as a natural resource and we knew it was vitally important for tourism,’ he said
He says that his decision to get involved in search and rescue also helped to change the public attitude toward marine enforcement.
‘For me to do the job I had to go around the whole Island giving out my phone number and my contact details. As a result of me being there and being alert to the public pertaining to their calls, it made me available for emergency situations.’
It is estimated that over a 20-year period, Mr. Ladner was involved in at least 90 rescues that were potentially life or death situations for the victims. Many of these involved such things as kids caught in dangerous rip currents in channels, boats sinking, people unable to get out of the water after jumping off the bluff near Pedro St James, stabilising and transporting victims to shore after medical emergencies on the water and so on.
Mr. Ladner was recognised for his outstanding contributions on many occasions.
On the wall of his house off Selkirk Drive there are numerous plaques of appreciation including some from the 911 emergency communications centre, which commended his responsiveness to numerous situations.
In 1998, the Rotary Club of Grand Cayman said of him, ‘Your concern and involvement has undoubtedly helped save some lives’ and he was held up as an example of the organisation’s motto of service above self.
They also pointed out that he had repeatedly placed his own life in danger to assist others.
On hearing of the retirement Mr. Gomez said that ‘when Ladner came on board he made it abundantly clear to all, including the governor, that he would continue his volunteer rescue operations. This he has done, oftentimes at great risk to life and limb. He is truly a son of these Islands; one who everyone will agree is the epitome of an unsung hero.’
Mr. Ladner says he was first inspired to join law enforcement by his grandfather Roddy Watler, who was the chief of police in the Cayman Islands for many years.
‘I grew up around many of the people he worked with and I looked up to and respected people like, Inspector Cardiff Solomon, Inspector Rayal Anderson, Superintendent Vernon Ebanks and Inspector Carl (Boy) Ebanks. I also got on well with the officers brought in from Belize and Barbados. After my parents both died in 1973, I kind of went into shock for a while and then Superintendent James Terry approached me and asked if I would like to join the force. I decided to go for it and it was one of the best things I ever did.’
Looking back on his time at Department of the Environment he says ‘it was a great place to work, it was like a big family. The members of staff are committed people and they really care about what they are doing.
He said he has the highest respect for the Director Gina Ebanks-Petrie.
He also thanked the public for their help over the years and the trust and support they gave him.
‘I think after a while the people realised that when they called in, their information was kept in the strictest confidence. Eventually they became much more willing to call in rule breakers and the whole thing became somewhat self-policing.’
The staff at DoE is planning to throw a party for Mr. Ladner sometime soon and on the 14th he will hand over his radio and other equipment.
‘He will be sorely missed at the department, but he leaves a strong foundation that he helped create and we wish him the very best for his retirement,’ said Mrs. Ebanks-Petrie. ‘He became the face of Marine Enforcement in the Cayman Islands. He protected the environment, he saved lives and I think it is fair to say he has done a lot of good for this country.’