It was a cold, overcast day in the Netherlands and the water was the color of lead when Mike Schouten took the first tentative steps in what would become a lifelong love affair with scuba diving.
The scuba instructor recently completed his 10,000th dive in very different conditions, in the warm, clear waters of Little Cayman’s Bloody Bay Wall.
Throughout his diving career, Mr. Schouten estimates he has spent the equivalent of a year of his life under water.
“Time well spent,” he said.
The 44-year-old, who works at the Southern Cross Club in Little Cayman, said he is already working on the next 10,000 dives.
He has not lost his enthusiasm for the sport and says there is always new marine life to see and new patterns of behavior to recognize. He is pleased that Little Cayman, where he has worked since 2006, has retained its beauty despite the pressures facing reefs everywhere.
“The reefs are still as bountiful and colorful as the day I started. However, I have realized over the years that there is a seasonality to the reef which you wouldn’t realize if you visit somewhere for a short time. During spring, we might see more juveniles. During summer, we are more likely to spot a hammerhead shark and during the winter months, we might see an explosion of sap-sucking slugs.”
His attention to detail and ability to seek out interesting animals make Mr. Schouten a favorite with divers on Little Cayman. He has been known to dive with an underwater magnifying glass to help illuminate the activities of tiny critters that make the reefs their home.
He is also renowned for wearing two wet suits and one guest even wrote a song paying tribute to his underwater dress sense.
“A couple of years ago I was on the boat when one of the divers asked why I wear two wet suits. Very offhandedly, I quipped, ‘Because I can’t contain the sexy!’ One of the other divers overheard us and unbeknownst to me wrote a song about it,” he said.
“The next day, the diver came walking down the resort with a guitar under his arm and called me over, sat me down at the bar and with all the other divers around us sang me the song that he wrote.” The guest later recorded the song with his band Aversion Therapy and made it available on iTunes under the title “Two Wet Suits.”
It is moments like these and the “extraordinary people” he has met along the way that Mr. Schouten said have made his dive career so memorable.
To celebrate hitting the 10,000 milestone, he and Southern Cross owner Peter Hillenbrand dove 10 dive sites on Little Cayman from Blacktip Boulevard to Lea Lea’s Lookout.
“This dive wasn’t about anticipation, but more of emotion and reflection,” he said. “Thinking about previous dives reminds me of all the amazing people that I have had the pleasure of diving with, and all the extraordinary marine life that I have seen, from tiny seahorses to humpback whales.”
With the pleasures of the job come responsibilities, and Mr. Schouten believes he and other dive instructors have a role to play in preserving coral reefs for future generations.
“It is one of the more important responsibilities of a dive instructor, to make divers aware of the fragility of this amazing marine ecosystem, not just at a local level by explaining how good buoyancy is important not to damage the reef, but also on a global level, because increasing water temperatures and acidification due to global warming are a real and existing threat to the reef.”