Zameer Rahaman’s first breath underwater was pure exhilaration. He was 17-years-old and now, 25 years later, can still remember his moment of bliss. He’d found his passion. His mission then, since becoming certified in 1998 as a scuba instructor, has been to share that experience with his students.
“I love teaching and my first breath underwater is what I try to give everybody – that sense of excitement,” he told Business Day at the private pool in Barrakpore he uses for his lessons. For Rahaman, diving was a hobby, a side job that he did on weekends as a way to indulge in and share his passion regularly.
But last December, he was retrenched as his former employer, Columbus Energy Services, restructured its operations.
“Everything happens for a reason and I am grateful for the company but at the end of the day, I’m out of a job. The sad thing is, being retrenched at the same time as Petrotrin and many other companies based in the same oil and gas sector there’s a ripple effect through the industry.”
With that, he had two options – sitting home doing nothing or taking his hobby and making something out of it. Now, he’s a full-time diving instructor.
“It was a negative, I was sad but everything happens for a reason. I’m taking a hobby and making it into a career. How much better can that be? Hopefully it works out and can be profitable but for now I’m happy.”
It’s been a transition, but he’s excited. First up, marketing. “Initially I never advertised – everything was word of mouth. Now I’ve started my Facebook page and Instagram to do that,” he said. In fact, he said, it was some of his former students that gave him the push he needed to take this very different type of plunge. Riesa Sumair, who learned to dive from Rahaman and now owns her own lionfish and seafood distribution company helps him run his social media. “People are really happy with the way I teach and how and they pushed me. And well, I’m unemployed and have to pay the bills,” Rahaman laughed.
His classes are immersive (literally) and small, allowing for one-on-one attention. He likes it that way so he can focus enough time on his students to make sure they get the basics.
He’s also very interested in changing people’s sometimes negative preconceptions about diving.
“People in TT have preconceptions of diving, that you’ll damage your ears, get the bends (decompression sickness), these are the things that hamper diving. But being an instructor (I’ve realised that) a lot of people who do it don’t get proper training that’s where accidents happen since most of the time accidents are diver's error,” he said. But interest in diving is picking up. Diving is more than just recreation or spearfishing, he said, but it’s commercially viable and attached to some major industries, including shipping and ship maintenance, off-shore work, marine biology and search and rescue and recoveries.
But for the most part, Rahaman treats his successful students and other certified divers to tours throughout the Caribbean, notably the islands off the north coast, including Chacachacare, Monos, Huevos, and Macqueripe in Trinidad, and Charlotteville, Speyside in Tobago.
“Tobago has some of the best diving in the world. The reefs are beautiful, so many colours and fish. You can come up on a stingray just chilling and encounter blacktip sharks but like everything else if you leave them alone they’ll leave you alone. Enjoy what God and nature has put for you,” he said.
He also leads sustainable hunts to help protect reef biodiversity, including invasive lionfish and was one of the inspirations for Sumair to start her company, Lion’s Den, which now supplies lionfish to some top restaurants and chefs, as well as individuals.
Having been diving so long, especially in Tobago, Rahaman is also uniquely placed to chart the evolution of the reef. “You see the difference. When I started diving it was rich, Buccoo Reef, in colours and corals. Now you see changes. In Macqueripe, we would go and snorkel or scuba dive. Today is nowhere close to what it was with very little reef life or reef life. And we still see people there fishing – free divers (with spear guns with no concern for the people there swimming.) It’s an accident waiting to happen even though there are signs that say no spear fishing,” he said.
Signs stop nobody, he said, but the country needs policies and enforcement to control and maintain fishing and biodiversity.
“Yes, global warming has an effect but it’s mainly people. In the 1990s you had people still allowed to go on the reef and walk on the reef. Now there are measures in place to stop that but the horse is already out of the stables, it’s reactive. We need to limit anchoring. In Grenada, there are flags with anchor buoys so nobody can anchor, but there are posts to tie your boat. Even effluent controls from yachts who otherwise dump their raw sewage into the ocean near the coastline. All these things can destroy the ecosystem.”
It’s simple policies, he says, like regulating trawling and by-catch and monitoring fish stocks that can make the world of difference. He also suggests artificial reefs especially in areas down the islands to encourage more dive tours.
It’s an industry that has the potential to explode, Rahaman said, once it gets these simple policy fixes in place.
“Once we get basic policies in place it’s an industry waiting to grow. We can have a vibrant industry. I’ve dived in the US where people dive in a hole with visibility of three feet and they’re happy with that. In Tobago, the visibility can sometimes be 100 feet. Our industry (could be) so much better.”
Check out Explorers of the Deep on Facebook and Instagram.