Luis “Melky” Berhuno: The first Timorese Dive Instructor. Photo: Elvis Guterres/USAID’s Tourism For All Project
When Luis “Melky” Berhuno landed his first job with a scuba diving centre, his task was to keep shore watch alone on the beach, as the divers walked into the sea for their underwater adventure. He would help them with their equipment when they surfaced, chattering with excitement about an experience he could only imagine. Now, with support from USAID’s Tourism For All project, he has become Timor-Leste’s first professional dive instructor.
Melky’s instructor course with Scuba Diving International was made possible through a USAID-funded grant to Dreamers Dive Academy Timor. Since he qualified, Melky has taught 20 young Timorese men and women to dive and they have all gained their open water certification through the program. The grant also enabled the Dreamers Dive Academy staff to increase their professional credentials: now they are one of a handful of dive centres in the Asia region designated as 5-star Instructor Development facilities.
“When I started working at the dive center I only knew a few fish and mostly just that you could eat them!” Melky said, “There’s a big difference in my life now. I feel I have learned a lot about dive theory, how to find animals, give briefings and be a dive leader. Also, I can use my monthly salary to help my parents and buy my own dive equipment”.
Timor-Leste is rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the world’s top scuba-diving destinations: it’s a global hotspot for marine biodiversity and has some of the healthiest coral reefs in the world. Tourists and expats have been diving there since the country gained its independence in 2002, but local people have been missing out on the opportunity to explore this stunning underwater world for themselves.
Melky now has more than 400 dives under his belt and has been guiding tourists around the world-class dive sites along Timor-Leste’s north coast and Atauro Island, which are becoming popular with marine naturalists and photographers. “They come for the coral reef, crystal water, pristine beach, the whales and dolphins, and the diverse marine eco-system,” he said, “I’ve met many people from many different countries, from Europe, USA and Asian countries. These relationships are very important in building community with other divers, practicing skills and simply getting out to explore the underwater world. Everyone can continue their lifelong journey to becoming a more competent and confident diver,” he added.
The dive industry will play a vital role in steering the Timorese economy away from its dependence on oil and gas and tourism is one of the sectors identified by the Government that can generate income and employment for its people. Now, through the USAID grant, the opportunity has opened up for more young Timorese to enjoy recreational diving and to step up as professionals, playing an active role in their own dive industry.
Dreamers Dive Academy Managing Director Kate Barker explained that Timorese divers are also getting involved in marine conservation and awareness-raising, one of the goals of the National Tourism Policy: “We have been surprised by the reaction,” she said, “We’ve had huge responses from the community, interested not only in doing diving but in general looking at the sea, snorkeling, swimming, and engaging with their marine ecosystem. We’ve gained hundreds of new followers on our social media platforms, with constant interactions from youth looking to join or create a club where Timorese can gather to enjoy their sea. This shows that the USAID program is changing how people think and that they are recognising diving as one of the potential industries in Timor-Leste,” she added. This increased interest in the sport among local people has now created a new market for domestic dive tourism and Melky hopes to encourage more and more Timorese people to try scuba diving.
Professional scuba diving courses are challenging. To make the grade, Melky had to study the complex technical aspects of diving and develop a deep understanding of safety and emergency management procedures. Apart from gaining expert diving skills, instructors also have to learn to teach and motivate their students to stick with the course. In Timor-Leste, that’s not always easy: many people are poor swimmers and lack the scientific education and the language skills needed to understand the dive theory course materials. As the first Timorese instructor, Melky was able to help new divers overcome this difficulty by explaining the course to them in the local language, Tetun.
“It was so rewarding to see so many of the candidates who were struggling with various aspects still maintain their excitement and determination and then gain their certification,” Kate explained, “Melky worked extremely hard to achieve this and Dreamers Dive Academy is super proud of him. One step at a time, learning different specialties, mastering his English and working daily in the industry. He’s a hard-working man with big dreams”.
Dreamers Dive Academy co-owner Ivan S. Loria Shelley said that support from USAID had helped the company to achieve its goal in bringing dive education to Timorese people: “This journey has been incredibly touching. With unexpected challenges and the need for full dedication from all our team, taking all of our experience and motivation to push through. This though, brought the greatest rewards, from professional growth to unexpected marketing for the company, as well as a profound and deep experience that goes beyond words. To share time with these young souls, full of dreams, full of potential… motivated and accelerated when surrounded by minds alike. In my heart, I know this is the beginning of a larger adventure.”