This Job Training Is Better than Yours: Learning Dive Safety in New Caledonia

Not many people get to spend their work days scuba diving on some of the world’s most pristine coral reefs. But for my colleagues and me in New Caledonia, a French territory in the South Pacific, regularly monitoring the health of these important ecosystems is an important part of our jobs.

Yet diving poses a certain degree of risk; everything from faulty equipment to accidents to marine animals occasionally threatens the safety — or even lives — of divers. When it comes to CI’s work, that’s where Edgardo Ochoa comes in.

As CI’s dive safety officer, Edgardo recently led a dive safety training with staff and partners in New Caledonia — ensuring that not only will we be more safe while diving, but that we can do our jobs better.

New Caledonia may not be widely known beyond the Pacific Ocean, but its marine ecosystems hold tremendous beauty and value. Its lagoons, which form the second most extensive reef system in the world and host outstanding levels of healthy biodiversity, were declared a World Heritage site in 2008.

Our dive training program was conducted in Ouvea, an atoll whose population is mainly Kanak, the natives from New Caledonia and representatives of the region’s Melanesian indigenous group. Since 2012, CI has been involved in developing and implementing an island-wide community-based management in this special place.

The challenge in being recognised as a World Heritage site is the need to ensure the maintenance of the site’s integrity in the long term. With its great diversity of species — including some found nowhere else on Earth — abundant resources and variety of habitats that maintain ecological processes, the island provides numerous services that deeply contribute to the livelihoods of local communities. Consequently, these people are already being affected by threats to these ecosystems, such as overfishing and climate change impacts including coastal habitat loss and sea level rise.

The idea for the training formed a year ago, when I attended CI’s seascape meeting in Hawaii and first met Edgardo. During a break between two sessions, we started chatting and shared stories of great dives we had experienced around the world. Edgardo explained that in order to align with CI’s current dive safety protocols, his job is to make sure that all CI marine staff who dive have both the required diving level and appropriate training in diving first aid. Together with our colleagues, we began discussing how a training course could be organised in New Caledonia to benefit both NC and Pacific region staff.

As we planned this training, I couldn’t help but think that this project could be even more effective if we extended it beyond CI staff. Building local skills is critical to efficiently implement the management plan of Ouvea. As a marine World Heritage site, the health of Ouvea’s reef has to be monitored on a regular basis and communities need to evaluate the efficiency of rules and regulations they have adopted to manage their resources. In addition, the site has exceptional potential for developing scuba-diving activities.

Here are four of the local participants we invited to join us:

  • Pierre Kaouma: A local tour operator who organises snorkeling excursions where tourists can see mantas rays, eat fresh fish on an isolated islet and observe schools of grey sharks from the boat at one of his “secret spots.”
  • Pidra Kaouma: Pierre’s son, who is temporarily living in the capital of Nouméa where he works as a taxi-boat operator. He is pursuing a Master of Vessel certification, which will allow him to pilot large vessels.
  • Marino Tiaou: The local dive operator who was the first Kanak to own and manage a diving club in New Caledonia. As an assistant instructor for the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, Marino gets along great with everyone.
  • Soane Makaumo: Marino’s brother-in-law and the handyman of his diving club, Soane was already an excellent open water diver before the training.

All these men grew up on Ouvea’s lagoon, which they know as well as the back of their hands; they are very close partners and friends. When I brought this project to their attention, they were all in without hesitation. Not only were they happy to follow the training (which meant having no tourism income during the weeklong training), they helped out greatly with planning the dives and ensuring the logistics.

All in all, the training program involved a team of 10 people from New Caledonia and Samoa. Participants shared their knowledge, passion and skills through numerous activities, including a theoretical course, safety exercises and a variety of dives, including some in deep water and at night. Divers were tested on many skills, such as basic scuba knowledge, underwater navigation, dive supervision, managing risk and safety and rescuing panicked or unresponsive divers.

At the end of the week, three open water divers, two advanced divers and three dive masters were certified. Both Pierre and Marino are already looking forward to the next step: instructor certification, which will allow them to train local community members to dive. CI’s team will be more than happy to facilitate this.

New Caledonia is one of the 23 Pacific island nations and territories behind the Pacific Oceanscape, a framework to conserve and sustainably manage a vast area of ocean four times the size of the United States. Our dive safety training may seem small, but when it comes to community-based management, it is clear that this initiative and its outcomes will provide measurable benefits in the long run. Not only will having more registered divers in the region improve safety and increase the number of people who can collect reef data, but it will also expand employment options for local people as tourism grows.

Without a doubt, this training marks the beginning of exciting things for diving in New Caledonia. I can’t wait to see what happens.

Mael Imirizaldu is CI New Caledonia’s marine program development officer.