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Winnipeg scuba kids hit Bonaire reefs

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Many times, in the four years since Rebekah Hatherly started scuba diving, the 15-year-old has imagined the pool where she practises as a coral reef, alive with colour and texture.

But none of her fantasies prepared her for the real thing, when Hatherly stepped into the Caribbean Sea this summer off the coast of the tiny Caribbean island of Bonaire.

The beauty of it all literally brought the East Kildonan teen to tears.

"I was just so amazed to be there and see all the colours," Hatherly recalled. "I had never seen coral until I was in Bonaire. Now I think how silly my imagination was."

Hatherly was one of six Winnipeg kids to travel to Bonaire -- one of five islands that compose the Netherlands Antilles -- between July 31 and Aug. 7, taking part in an organized program called Kids Sea Camp.

All the young divers train through 3 Fathoms Scuba on Henderson Highway. The shop offers a Scuba Rangers program for kids aged 8 to 12, and a Junior Open Water Diver program for 12- to 16-year-olds.

Michelle Wetton, an employee at 3 Fathoms, started the youth programs in 2006 -- only a year after she started scuba diving herself.

Part of her motivation was to provide today's young generation with the opportunities she never had.

"There wasn't a kids program until I came along," said Wetton, adding as a child her grandparents had lives across the street from 3 Fathoms and she'd often peer into the window, fascinated by the displays.

"I could tell there were kids out there interested in marine biology, but being here in the middle of Canada, we're kind of landlocked," she said.

Though the programs have been running for four years, the trip to Bonaire specifically for young divers was a first for 3 Fathoms.

The island was a good choice partly because it's renowned for its shore diving, meaning the reefs are accessible from the beach -- an ideal situation for beginner divers.

Wetton had fed the imaginations of many of her students with stories from her own dives in the Caribbean, and said the interest in the trip was enormous.

One of the first to express interest was Shannon Fitzhenry, whose grandfather, Sherman Murphy, has been diving since the 1990s.

"Shannon used to say forever, 'When are you taking me to the Caribbean, grandpa?' So when this trip came up it was a no-brainer," said Murphy.

Murphy, who accompanied his 12-year-old granddaughter to Bonaire, has been to a number of Caribbean destinations, but said the island stood out for its untouched beauty.

In fact, the entire coastline of Bonaire -- which is located about 80 kilometres north of Venezuela -- is designated as a marine park, a conservation project that started in 1979.

"They were one of the first destinations in the Caribbean to realize that if they didn't take care of the reefs, the divers wouldn't come," said Ian Sutherland, the owner of 3 Fathoms.

For divers, the marine park means a few very simple rules.

"You don't touch anything, you don't feed anything, and obviously don't kill anything," said Murphy.

Those guidelines weren't a problem for Fitzhenry.

"It's not bad that you can't take anything, it's good just looking," she said.

It helped, of course, that there was plenty to look at -- myriad of sea turtles, fishes, seahorses and beautiful coral.

Fitzhenry said one of her favourite memories was encountering a tarpon -- a six-foot-long silver fish -- during her first night dive.

"He was kind of scary because you could see his teeth," she recalled, adding he was the colour of tinfoil.

Getting up close and personal with the sealife was a highlight for Ben Manness, an 11-year-old from Island Lakes.

Manness -- whose parents came along to Bonaire -- had snorkeled in Hawaii before but said exploring the coral reefs through scuba diving was an entirely new experience.

"Instead of just looking up from the surface, you're down there with them," he said.

"You're in their environment," chimed in his father, Doug. "It's perfectly quiet except for the bubbles and the sound of the fish munching on the coral."

Manness said his favourite moment of the trip was when the group happened to witness the hatching of Bonaire's first leatherback sea turtles in recorded history.

"I got to see that, out of how many people?" he gushed, obviously energized by the memory.

He added that he was amazed by how small the hatchlings were.

"Something that's smaller than my hand will grow to be bigger than me," he said.

His father added that Bonaire is also involved in reforesting its coral reefs, and always looking for volunteers -- hinting there may be another trip to the island in the future for the family.

Yvonne Manness added that being able to enjoy scuba diving as a family is one of the activity's strongest assets.

"It's not something only (Ben) can participate in, or we (his parents) can participate in. It's something we all can do," she explained.

Wetton said that family dynamic could be one of the reasons there's a growing interest in scuba diving among kids and teenagers.

She added organized programs like Kids Sea Camp are indicative of this trend.

"This is a relatively new thing and I think adult divers are interested in involving their whole families," she said.

Sutherland said there's also an advantage to learning to dive at a young age.

"They learn way easier than adults," he said. "They're more adventurous."

For Hatherly -- the teen who was brought to tears over the beauty of the coral reef -- learning to dive has also spawned an interest in conservation and a desire to one day become a marine biologist.

Being in Bonaire was a dream come true, she added, and though the trip was only a week long, she recalls the final days fondly.

"I wasn't sad or anything because I knew I'd be back again," she said. "I was just trying to suck it all in and enjoy every breath under water."


Scuba Rangers Program

With the consensus that the Bonaire trip was a success, the team at 3 Fathoms is busy looking into destinations for next summer -- Grand Cayman is high in the running.

Michelle Wetton, the instructor for the youth programs at 3 Fathoms Scuba, said someone who has never dived before could receive the necessary qualification in time for the trip if they began lessons soon.

3 Fathoms provides six-week dive courses for $195, which includes all the necessary equipment.

For more information, call 668-2816 or visit

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 18, 2010 E1

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