Three years after the Bob Soto Memorial Scuba Scholarship was launched to encourage young Caymanians to become dive instructors, four recipients are using the skills they’ve learned along the way, not just in diving, but also in their academic and professional journeys.
Rickeem Lashley, 23, and Joshua Weaver, 19, were the first awardees of the dive instructor scholarship, back in 2018 when they both responded to an appeal from Suzy Soto, Bob Soto’s widow, for candidates. The following year, Shaun Jackson, 20, and Kameron D’Hue, 23, who had both signed up to learn diving through the Inspire Cayman Training programme, were chosen as the recipients.
The scholarship awards were made at the annual induction ceremonies of the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame.
On Saturday, 31 July, Soto, Rod McDowall of Red Sail Sports, alongside Aaron Hunt and Brittany Balli, of Cayman Eco Divers, plus some of the parents of the young Caymanian divers, met for a luncheon to celebrate their achievements.
Jackson and D’Hue both hope eventually to open their own dive shops, while Lashley and Weaver plan to use their dive skills in their chosen study fields of marine and freshwater biology, and wildlife conservation, respectively.
Assistant instructors D’Hue and Jackson
Neither D’Hue nor Jackson could scuba dive before they joined Inspire Cayman Training – a workforce and development centre run by Michael Myles – but they have gone from novice Open Water divers to assistant instructors in about eight months, which included the weeks of lockdown last summer when diving was prohibited.
D’Hue said he had seen an advertisement for Inspire Cayman on the internet. “I saw they were offering training in quite a few different areas, like carpentry, plumbing, electrical, construction, automobile mechanics, and dive instructor training. I didn’t know at first that I could only pick one, so I ticked off three or four, but when I got to the Inspire Cayman Training Centre, the owner Mr. Myles said I could only pick one, and I went with diving.”
After completing their Open Water certificates, they were encouraged to apply for the scholarship, to further their training.
“We started just before COVID,” D’Hue said. “Once COVID came along, it cancelled out everything, so we did Zoom meetings, and Whatsapp and video calls, that slowed it all down. We couldn’t do any dive training in the water… Once we did all the online course work, things calmed down, and lockdown eased up a bit and we were able to start diving again.”
D’Hue said his plan “is to have my own dive company, or to get as close as possible, maybe a boat captain or something like that”.
D’Hue and Jackson, who plan to take their Dive Instructor exams in November, went through their first levels of dive certification together, from Open Water to Dive Master, with Aaron Hunt of Eco Divers, and then did their Assistant Dive Instructor certification with Ashley McKnight of GoPro Diving.
Jackson, 20, is a member of the Cayman Islands Regiment, where one of his specialities is rescue diving. Since he first began diving with Inspire, he has completed more than 200 dives, he said.
“My grandmother knew about Inspire Cayman Training, and it had different types of studies. I used to do swimming as a kid and I decided to join the diving industry,” he said. “After a while, I got up to my Dive Master’s, and then COVID came along. I was out of work for a while, then I started doing some training at Grand Old House, and I signed up for the regiment.”
He said he has used diving “to help me build in different areas”.
As part of his work within the regiment, he may at some point get called up to take part in a marine rescue, though that has not happened as yet. He will also be training for other types of rescues, when he does a one-week camp this month on humanitarian action, which will include evacuation and medical training.
Diving has helped mould his ambitions, he said, as “My plan in the future is to open my own dive shop. For right now, I want to have different businesses, I want to have a restaurant and a dive shop and have them connected.”
To get to Dive Instructor level, divers must first go through Open Water, Advanced, Rescue and Assistant Instructor.
Rescue divers Lashley and Weaver
Lashley was the first of the four to be chosen for the scholarship, after his parents encouraged him to apply, when he heard Soto speaking about the programme on the radio.
Weaver also applied for the scholarship in response to Soto’s radio invitation. Both were already recreational divers, having received their Open Water certifications, the first level of dive training, when they were 16 years old.
The two did their further training together, as dive buddies, with Red Sail, and have reached Rescue Diver level. They both plan to continue progressing with their dive training when their university schedules allow.
“My entire academic path was geared toward marine and freshwater biology,” Lashley said, adding that he has not had the time to go beyond Rescue Diver level because he was completing his undergraduate degree in Wales. “After I finish my Master’s, I should have time,” he said.
Lashley, who previously interned at the Central Caribbean Marine Institute on Little Cayman for nine months, hopes to come back to Cayman and work at the Department of Environment.
Weaver is also aiming for nature-based study when he goes to the University of Kent in the UK next month, to begin a degree in wildlife conservation.
“I was always interested in nature and the environment from a very young age,” he said.
The summer before he received the Soto scholarship, he completed his Open Water certification, and won a trip to Isla Mujeres in Mexico to see whale sharks with the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation.
“It’s been a pretty amazing experience,” he says of his dive training since winning the scholarship. He said the importance of the ocean environment should never be overlooked, as it has such a strong impact on what’s happening on land.
Encouraging others to get underwater
All four of the divers say they would encourage other young Caymanians to get involved in diving.
“It might seem like it’s a touristy thing to do,” Lashley said, “but there are a lot of skills it teaches you, and it provides an awareness of the aquatic environment. It’s hand in hand with the Caymanian culture… Cayman is a tourist destination for our pristine coral reefs. If every Caymanian had an opportunity to see firsthand what it’s like, they’d have a deeper respect and admiration for what it is, and they’d understand why so many organisations back it so fervently.”
Jackson said he understands why some people may be reluctant to become divers, recalling his own experience of growing up here in Cayman. “I’d see that dark blue water and think ‘I’m not jumping in that. It’s too dark.’ But going down there and seeing what it’s like, it’s totally different scenery. It’s actually more relaxing than being on land.”
Bob Soto Memorial Scuba Scholarship
Bob Soto, a Cayman dive pioneer, passed away in 2015 at the age of 88. He opened one of the world’s first diving resorts on Grand Cayman in 1957.
His wife of 34 years, Suzy Soto, describing the origins of the dive scholarship, said her late husband’s passion was sharing the underwater world with as many people as possible.
“[He] trained a lot of Caymanian young men to work with him and to carry on the tradition, starting their dive operations,” she said.
The Bob Soto Memorial Scuba Scholarship is supported by Inspire Cayman Training, and a number of dive operations, including Red Sail, Eco Divers and GoPro Diving, who have joined Suzy Soto and Bob’s son Rene Soto, in ensuring that it is utilised to attract more Caymanians to the world of diving.