J.P. Skinner will never forget the wonder of his first scuba dive.
He was 16, and captivated by all the fish.
“I thought, for thousands of years people haven’t been able to do this, and I can,” he said.
Since 2001 he’s spent much of his time sharing that wonder with young people through his environmental programme, Waterstart Bermuda.
He never expected accolades for the privilege.
The 50-year-old was one of four Bermudians recognised last week by the International SeaKeepers Society for their “extraordinary commitment to ocean conservation”.
“I’m very honoured,” said Mr Skinner, who received a SeaKeeper Award along with Judie Clee, Chris Flook, and Phillipe Rouja. “They reached out to Phillipe and he put my name forward.
“It is a little humbling to be in the company of so many marine stewards and people who have inspired so many local people — Judie Clee is a hero of mine.
“I never imagined my programme getting an award like this. I envisioned a programme involving tide pools and some buckets. It is pretty exciting to see Waterstart Bermuda reach this stage.”
Waterstart has taught more than 1,000 students between the ages 12 and 17 how to appreciate the ocean through scuba diving and marine science and conservation projects since the former BHS teacher started the summer programme.
“Ultimately, we want them to become stewards of the ocean,” said Mr Skinner. “We don’t have to lecture much. We just take them down and show them what’s there. If they love what they see they’ll want to protect it. Both my parents, Timothy and Janet Skinner, were teachers who came over from England. Early on they warned me not to become a teacher.
“They said it was a good profession, but I wouldn’t go anywhere with it. Well I rebelled and became a teacher anyway, and I loved it.”
His direction changed while on a teacher training course in Long Beach, California with his wife Amanda.
“We took a boat trip out to Catalina Island,” said Mr Skinner. “I snuck away from the tour group to go for a little swim and snorkel in the kelp forests. They were so beautiful. As I was swimming back to the mainland I noticed that our tour boat was leaving. I came out of the water and incurred [my wife’s] wrath.”
The dock master directed the stranded couple to Ross Turner, director of the Catalina Island Marine Institute. He gave them a behind-the-scenes tour; Mr Skinner was deeply inspired.
“About 50,000 students went through the institute every year and they were just so fired up and enthusiastic,” he said. “I thought we needed that in Bermuda.”
He decided to take a sabbatical from teaching, and formed Waterstart. It was such a success, he never went back to the classroom. Mr Skinner ran the programme on his own for three years, and then partnered with Bios for the next 13.
This year, he decided to run Waterstart again on his own. He’s hopeful that it will allow him to develop the environmental sustainability aspect, do more community outreach and eventually expand beyond the 100-student limit.
“Most of our programmes were completely booked up by March,” he said. “For every student we accept we have to turn two away.”
Waterstart runs over seven weeks at Burt Island this year. Twelve students are accepted into each one-week session. Tuition is $800, however, there is a “robust bursary and scholarship programme to ensure that any keen student can afford to attend”.
Mr Skinner is proud that his daughter Zoe, 16, will start Waterstart’s rescue diving programme this summer; his son Christopher, 13, will start the advanced diving programme.
“They didn’t have any choice about learning to dive,” he laughed. “They’ve been doing it since they were little.”
But Waterstart is also about using scuba skills in a practical way.
“This year we are collaborating with the Living Reefs Foundation who have been establishing some coral gardens,” Mr Skinner said. “This is restoring corals and growing them out on underwater frameworks. We will be working with them to have them photo documented.”
New students often turn up nervous and scared, he said.
“Being teenagers they don’t show it but they realise on the first day in the water, actually this is not that scary. It is actually pretty easy. We start in really shallow water and make it so they are craving more.”
He said a lot of people see scuba diving as something inherently dangerous.
“I think it is a very safe environment, as long as you follow the rules,” he said. “We really teach the students, even if you are the best swimmer in the world, things go wrong when you break the rules.
“I have been out surfing and got into situations and thought after, that was stupid. I really didn’t look at the environment carefully enough before I went out.”
These days he’s starting to see his work paying off. “When I started there weren’t a lot of other Bermudians involved in scuba diving,” he said.
“I think it was a cultural thing. There are a lot more now doing it. I’d like to think I’m responsible for at least part of that, but there are other organisations which are also helping.
“Eventually, I hope my students will take over and put me out of business.”
• Visit sites.google.com/site/waterstartinbermuda/