TURNING passion into a profession, marine biologists and certified scuba diving instructors Jaedon Lawe and Llewelyn Meggs have ventured below the surface with an exciting scuba diving and watersports business.
"I love being under the water. I love the fact that when you're there you have to be present, you have to be in the moment, and there's always the possibility of seeing something new. You could dive a reef 10 times, and on the 11th time there's something you've never seen before," said Lawe with a twinkle in his eyes.
For over 10 years Yardie Divers and Watersports has been operating around the Port Royal Cays, giving Kingstonians the opportunity to either get certified in or experience scuba diving. "We realise there was a gap in diving for Kingston. All of the diving was on the north coast, and then we realised that there are dive sites here on the south coast," Lawe explained to the Jamaica Observer as his reason for starting the business.
Scuba diving is a water sport that involves breathing air from a tank while underwater to explore the environment. In 2013, the business started with Yardies I, a 32-foot-long vessel that Lawe recalled was overpriced at $1.5 million. Five years later, the Yardies II vessel was added. The COVID-19 period brought a huge dip in profits, and although profits are not always how they would want them to be, he says the growth is measured in many other ways.
Scuba diving is a common recreational activity for tourists, which explains why many watersports operators carefully choose tourist-concentrated areas for these activities, as Jamaicans have a history of staying away from activities they consider risky or outside their comfort zone. "One of the biggest challenges is offering diving to Jamaicans; they are not very nautically inclined, meaning, they don't all swim. Even though we're on an island, they're still very afraid of the water. People are not receptive to breathing underwater, so definitely trying to convince them over the years to come out and try has been challenging," he said. But Lawe asserts that Jamaicans aren't receptive because they don't know about it.
With help from social media influencers and creative marketing, Yardie Divers has been able to maintain a steady flow of students and participants year after year, taking out between six and eight people each day. Over time the business has diversified its offerings to include boat tours of Port Royal and its nearby mangroves and educational tours for secondary schools; offshore excursions; fishing trips; Lime Cay trips; and other watersports, such as towing and snorkelling. The business serves corporate groups, families, and individuals looking for an experience, along with a catering service. The cost of the service can run anywhere from a simple Lime-Cay trip of $2,500 per person to a ride and dive, which costs $15,000.
To participate in scuba diving with Yardie Divers, it begins with a lesson on how to connect a scuba tank to diving equipment and then a therapeutic sightseeing boat ride over to Lime Cay. On arrival at the clear, white sand beach, another short lesson is given on rules for diving and signals to communicate underwater. The captain of the boat assists by driving back 50 yards to mark the diving point, the scuba tanks and equipment are unloaded in the ocean, and each person is suited up. Slowly, the process of practising how to breathe underwater using the equipment provided begins with guidance from an instructor while slowly venturing deeper and deeper into the sea. The diving takes an estimated 45 minutes to complete, after which the beach is there for everyone's enjoyment until it's time to head back to the mainland. For those who have never seen underwater up close before, it can be an eye-opening experience.
"Some people finally realise the important role that the parrot fish play. So they see the parrot fish feeding on the reef and they are bound to see them actually pooping sand and they are like, 'Oh, so that's why we shouldn't eat the parrot fish.' People are usually fascinated by how it looks underwater, and it is always well received," said Lawe. With each trip, he says, people leave filled with a sense of environmental stewardship and now feel a responsibility to take care of the environment. "They now interact a little bit closer with it, it has more meaning to them," he told Sunday Finance. "While I'm diving, I'm pointing out the garbage on the reef. I'm taking the garbage off the reef constantly, just letting the clients be aware. I do feel a sense of responsibility to properly educate the clients about the marine environment, the importance of the different organisms there, and so on."
Yardie Divers, though predominantly a scuba diving business now, is continuously looking at new watersports to diversify its offerings and be inclusive for everyone. "Our vision is to offer premier watersports and diving services to Kingston â€” anything underwater, just come to us," said Lawe.