CCMI programme inspires students

Caymanian students get indoctrinated in ocean ecology.

Ruhaines Ebanks says she’s determined to open her eco-friendly business.

For Martina Burton, becoming a physician is a clearer goal.

And Jelani Morrison says he’s now leaning toward a degree in marine biology.

All three young women say their participation in the Young Environmentalist Leadership Course at the Central Caribbean Marine Institute in Little Cayman has not only taught them things they didn’t know about the underwater world, but it has also helped them to bring their plans into better focus.

The seven-year-old programme is designed to expose more Caymanian students to the possibilities of a career related to the marine environment, whether that’s working in the local dive industry, becoming a research scientist or something in between. Students must apply to the programme, which is funded through Foster’s, Cayman National Bank and Go Pro Diving.

Ebanks, Burton and Morrison were three of eight students who recently completed the programme after spending a week at CCMI diving, studying underwater ecology and practising job skills, such as writing a resume and giving a presentation. The week-long immersive experience followed a nearly six-month stint during which the students became certified scuba divers, working their way to the level of rescue diver.

CCMI education coordinator Maisey Fuller, who oversees the programme, said this was the first year the students spent weekends doing their underwater training before coming to the institute. In the past, students came to Little Cayman for two weeks, the first of which was devoted to scuba training.

Fuller pointed to the advantages of the extra training over a longer period, explaining the students are “more confident in the water and they’re a close-knit group. It does mean they can get more out of being in the water with us.”

Katie Correia, who led the course for several years, said because the students have more experience underwater, CCMI personnel do not need to monitor their status as closely.

”We can focus on giving them that methodology training, coming here and learning what a coral is, what the mucus layer on a fish is. It’s giving them a great opportunity,” she said.

During the week, students study and learn to identify different corals and reef fish, conduct underwater surveys, help to clean the institute’s coral nurseries and are schooled in the impact of pollution, particularly plastics, on the ocean environment.

“Coral bleaching, I knew about that,” said Morrison, 16, a student at Cayman Prep and High School. “But here, you learn how it affects the real world.”

Coral is a critical part of the ocean’s food chain, and when it bleaches – most commonly from an increase in ocean temperature or acidity – the fish populations it supports must try to find other sources of food and protection.

On the final full day of their programme, the students were clustered in the bow of a dive boat, bouncing along the choppy waters on the west side of Little Cayman. They were headed for the institute’s coral nursery, a network of PVC-pipe frames hung with bits of staghorn coral.

Students in the Young Environmentalist Leadership Course clean the coral nursery maintained by the Central Caribbean Marine Institute. – Photo: Mark Muckenfuss

The nursery is susceptible to algae growth, which can be detrimental to the growing coral. Working 60 feet below the surface, the students carefully scrubbed away any algae growth, making sure not to harm the coral in the process. Eventually, the coral will be planted on the nearby reef as part of an effort to bolster their population, which has declined in recent years due, in part, to bleaching.

“Coming here has made us think about stuff like that,” said Ebanks, 26, who is an aide at Sir John A. Cumber Primary School and a student at the University College of the Cayman Islands. She said she and her boyfriend, who also went through the course, plan to get involved in coral restoration efforts on Grand Cayman.

Her experience has “motivated me even more” to pursue opening an eco-oriented food business tied to the tourist trade, she said.

“I think we need more businesses in Cayman that are eco-friendly,” she added.

Janice Contreras, 16, a student at the Cayman Islands Further Education Centre, said she thinks her interest in coral work might take her “around the world”.

“I saw all the bleaching going on and I said, ‘I want to make a change,’” Contreras said. “I want to make change anywhere I can.”

She said she got involved in the CCMI programme when her high school teacher recommended it to her.

“My teacher at John Gray saw the potential in me to do marine science,” she said. “She noticed my grades in biology were exceptional.”

Contreras said she is interested in pursuing something in the life sciences. The leadership course has only strengthened that.

“I started diving and it was incredible,” she said.

Opening up that world to Caymanian students has led to some of them venturing into associated careers. Alumni of the programme are working for several different dive companies in Cayman, as well as the Department of Environment. Some have gone on to study related subjects in university.

Greg Locher has been a volunteer with the programme since its inception. An Ohio resident, he coordinates one of his three annual trips to Little Cayman to coincide with the leadership programme. He said he’s beginning to see an impact from the course.

“Within the last four years, I’ve seen more Caymanians being accepted for research positions,” Locher said. “It was unheard of 10 years ago. I think CCMI is part of that process. They’re training these kids [who] are going on to college-level positions and coming back.”

Top Cayman sailor Jesse Jackson liked the programme so much, he went through it twice.
“I knew I wanted to do something on the ocean,” Jackson, who is studying nautical architecture in the UK, said. “I got to see what marine biology looks like. I’m still thinking of being a marine biologist.”

Steff Mcdermot, 19, who went through the programme in 2017, said it changed her path in life.

“I’m living proof that the YELC programme works,” Mcdermot said. “It brought me around to all things conservation. I say that YELC was the trampoline jump to this career path that I’m taking.”

She said, growing up, she saw the DoE as an agency keeping her from enjoying as much conch, lobster and local fish as she wanted.

“DoE were the bad guys,” Mcdermot said. Among her Caymanian family and friends, “the concept was ‘They’re taking away our stuff.’”

The leadership programme, she explained, taught her about sustainable practices and limiting catches to prevent overfishing.

She said after the course, she initially wanted to study marine biology. Since then, she has been involved in some activist roles and believes she can make more of an impact in the legal arena. She is in the process of finishing her associate’s degree at UCCI while also applying to law schools in the UK.

Programme director Fuller said the goal is not necessarily to develop new lawyers or researchers but to educate students about the ocean environment and encourage them to be ambassadors.

“Even if they go into watersports, having this experience is a huge deal,” Fuller said, because it gives them the ability to educate tourists and others they may work with about marine ecology.

That’s the bottom line, said Locher, when it comes to what the programme can do to benefit Cayman’s reefs and those around the world, and thus the ocean environment.

“Hopefully, these guys will get the education and appreciation and protect it,” he added.