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High Five for Confidence

Peter Marshall, I AM WATER CFO and Program Director

This is a story from our Ocean Challenge partner I AM WATER. Your participation in the Ocean Challenge has helped to support their work!

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"My eyes are burning. I don’t want to," he says as we start to wet our feet in the ocean’s waves at one of Cape Town’s most accessible marine protected areas.

"Let’s wipe your eyes and put your mask back on. You can do this," I encourage him. I suspect burning eyes are not the real issue. "Let’s keep breathing through our snorkel and let me count you through some breathing. Let’s breathe in 2, 3, 4, and out 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Well done," I tell the group of first time snorkelers as we regulate our breathing. We teach breathing techniques that help our learners in stressful life situations. On our ocean workshops that stressful situation is learning how to snorkel, but this boy is from Khayelitsha, a low-income community in Cape Town, South Africa, and tomorrow his stressful situation may be more serious than a snorkel trip.

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The I AM WATER Trust in South Africa targets an often overlooked demographic of potential South African conservationists- youth in Cape Town’s low-income coastal communities. We work with Grade 7 students (11-12 year olds) and introduce them to their oceans. Half way through our current season we are yet to find a student with kelp forest snorkeling experience prior to our workshop. Considering our target communities are all within 5 kilometers of the coast, we find this statistic mind boggling! Then we remember that 70% of these youth know someone who has drowned, and their lack of ocean enthusiasm begins to make sense.

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Many of our communities in Cape Town fear the ocean, and the first step towards creating a new ocean mindset is to help the youth enjoy their oceans. How can we expect these communities to care about ocean conservation when they have difficulty enjoying the ocean? Lucky for our youth, the ocean gives our learners the gift of emotional health as they explore and snorkel. Studies show many emotional benefits to youth who spend time in nature: increased ability to overcome fears, increased self confidence, increased sense of peace, and the ability to develop emotional buffers to stress.

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As my snorkel group tightens masks and counts their breathing, we relax into the water. Nervous questions turn into steady breathing as I pull my floating buoy of tightly gripped snorkelers through a shallow kelp forest. I remind my brave snorkelers that kelp will not hurt them as they regulate their breathing and kelp fronds brush against their wetsuits. We see our usual kelpfish, colorful urchins, and hungry starfish- the everyday residents in a beautiful kelp forest.

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When we finish, the boy whose eyes were burning gives me a quiet high five. I do not initiate the simple celebration, but I see that he is proud of himself. Chances are that he is the only person in his family to ever snorkel, and I bet he told his family all about his snorkel adventure. Another new ocean explorer from Khayelitsha and another successful I AM WATER Ocean Workshop.