If the Ocean Had a Voice

I recently met up with Kenneth Samuel of Kenneth's Dive Center. Because I'm kind of a scaredy cat when it comes to in-water activities, plus it's hard to speak with a snorkel or regulator in your mouth, we chatted in a car Comedians-in-Cars-Getting-Coffee style. 

The more I talk to people on the island, the more I realize how much has changed on St. Kitts in just one lifetime. If you really want to "see" St. Kitts, I recommend that you don't just pick a taxi/tour operator because it's "there" and then stare out the window in silence; pick one with an "old-timer" who can give you their own stories behind the sites you're seeing. If you want to go off-shore, you can't get any more authentic and knowledgeable than Kenneth because few know the surrounding seas and what's beneath them better. 

Kenneth has been free diving the waters around St. Kitts & Nevis ever since he can remember. As a young man, he regularly went out in his wooden fishing boat with only a mask (no fins) and a spear, diving 16 fathoms (96 feet!) for angel fish. Incredibly, there were times he'd be bringing up a heavy bag of conch from that depth, all on one breath. Years ago he dropped something overboard he didn't want to lose, so he went free diving after it. Fellow divers on the boat used a 30-fathom line for orientation and communications, and there were only 5 fathoms remaining before he found what he was looking for and headed back up. That would be a 150-foot dive! A lot of people told him he should try out for the Olympics since divers at that time were winning medals with only 50 feet under their belts (or flippers, as it were). In case you're wondering, the current free-diving record is 702 feet, but that guy wasn't bringing a load of fish back up.

 

At 13, Kenneth was working in the U.S. Virgin Islands and learned to scuba (although he didn't know it was called that at the time). At 17, he returned home to St. Kitts with a full scuba tank of his own. He'd sneak out at night when his mother was asleep and explore. Because the empty tank had to make a roundtrip to/from St. Croix for a recharge, a 6-week process, Kenneth used his free-diving breathing abilities to make one tank last for 2 weeks. 

 

Like Theophilus Taylor from the St. Kitts Sea Turtle Monitoring Network, Kenneth once hunted and ate turtle. There used to be a shallow place in Potato Bay where hundreds of turtles would come. He and others would nab 10 at a time for a turtle cook-out at least once per week. He didn't have to know anything about turtles to know they were disappearing though. So even before it was "cool" to start caring, he stopped killing turtles, urged others to quit as well, and began "tagging" turtles by clipping their nails. He was there when a leatherback turtle was tagged on North Friar's Bay beach and was as surprised as anybody when he got a call that the same turtle showed up in Egypt's Red Sea, 6,000 miles away. 

It wasn't long before he realized he'd rather take people out on underwater excursions than fish commercially, so that's what he's been doing for over 50 years. The main boat he uses now, the Lady Peggy, was designed in his head, scribbled out on the street, and brought to life by someone who saw his vision (and understood Kenneth was envisioning a catamaran). Kenneth became PADI Divemaster certified in 1985, and at 70 is still going strong, happy to share his insights with others and determined to advocate for the the sea and all that's in it.

There are many scuba sites and certainly many wrecks off shore, although some of these are covered by sand at one time or another.

Map Credit: Scuba St. Kitts

Kenneth will not only show you these sites, but also artificial ones he's created. Many reef (or bar) fish have disappeared or become very rare over the years, and Kenneth has been experimenting with how to bring them back. Back in the old days, fishermen might throw out a net at White House Bay and pull in 2,000 pounds of fish. Not any more.

One day, Kenneth threw a tire laden with stones (to keep it from moving) off the coast and was pleased to see that in just a few weeks, he went from netting 10 pounds of fish to 30. Then he loaded a junked car onto his little fishing boat, filled the boat with water to sink it, offloaded the car, and then brought the boat back up to the surface to dry out. When that worked too, he started dropping everything from planes to bull dozers into the sea. He finds that feeding the fish helps too, but that got expensive, and no one else seems inclined to help him, so the fish are currently fending for themselves.

When you head out with Kenneth, you might notice him staring down at the rocky seashore. It turns out he can tell by the types of stones that wash up whether a storm is coming. He also knows when it's time to harvest fish (when the flamboyant trees bloom), and when there will be a good fish harvest (when whales ply the waters). I thought those were cool things to know, so asked if any of his kids were absorbing this information. Of Kenneth's 24 surviving children (that's right, he has fathered 28 kids), I was surprised to learn that only one has continued in his footsteps (sort of), taking tourists on snuba tours. That seems like a shame, but he has lots of grandchildren, so maybe one of them will develop an interest and pick up where Kenneth leaves off.

A few years ago, Kenneth helped haul in several 3,000-pound cannons uncovered in White House Bay, possibly from an 18th-century galleon sunk during the battle of Frigate Bay. I saw a few cannons on the seabed when we were anchored in White House in 2009, and most people know they're there - that's why it's a snorkel/dive site - but some people think it's their discovery and theirs to sell. Sigh. Much of this federation's history has been lost in fires or buried under dirt or water; it would be nice if a few things could be left of their heritage for their children and their children's children. Depending on where you find any goodies, it might not belong to you anyway. If you find something of interest, consider contacting the St. Kitts National Trust for further guidance,

When he's not giving tours, Kenneth is called upon for search and rescue, mooring installations, and marine-impact opinions (which are too often ignored). Any time he gets a chance to voice his concerns, he doesn't hold back. I thought it a shame that 6 years after he said these words to SKNVibes, he had to say them again to me: "This is my livelihood and this is also our food source. And when we deplete the stock, what will we be doing to feed ourselves? Again, the question is asked several times by other people and myself, what is government doing? I can’t do anything of myself; all I can do it just talk, say what I see and express myself via radio, internet or the newspaper.” 

Although he believes everyone should play a part, he feels that it is the government's responsibility to educate those depleting or polluting the seas and to implement and enforce laws to prevent further oceanic travesties. Other islands have implemented policies (protected nursery sites, fishing seasons, lotteries, etc.) and seen results; there's no reason St. Kitts can't do the same. Real estate developments and tourist attractions should not be part of the problem, and anyone, foreign or local, found to have violated the law should be prosecuted to full effect. I'm inclined to agree.

He speaks for the ocean because it can not speak for itself, and earlier this year, Kenneth was awarded both the History and Heritage Award for “exceptional contribution to the preservation and promotion of the marine heritage of St. Kitts and Nevis, and the ECMMAN Hero Award (St. Kitts is one of six countries competing in a campaign to educate the public about the sustainability of marine ecosystems). Could it be the ocean's plea is finally being heard? 

 
 
 

Kenneth's Dive Center is located on Bay Road, a short walk on the main road to the right of the cruise ship terminal.
869-465-2670/1950
kdcsk@yahoo.com
Hours 8am to 5pm


Update:

As of August 18, 2016, the Honorable Eugene Hamilton approved the St. Kitts and Nevis Marine Management Area as defined by the two (2) miles radius of sea water around the St. Kitts and Nevis’ coastline including the Monkey Shoals area to be managed by the Department of Marine Resources as the entity with jurisdiction of the Federal Waters of St. Kitts and Nevis as indicated in the Fisheries, Aquaculture and Marine Resources Act (FAMRA) 2016.