Coastal communities are no different than any other with one big exception: the Ocean. Folks who live at the coast have a common environmental bond, whether they have realized it or not. In West Palm Beach, it is Jim Abernethy’s mission to bring locals together to strengthen that bond while creating an entire community of environmental champions who take marine conservation very seriously. Jim and his network of local stewards are not only practicing efforts to cleanup, conserve, and protect their coastal community environment; they also mentor others to continue the movement.
I met Jim while on a dive vacation and we struck up conversation as I returned my tank to his shop after an impromptu underwater cleanup at the Blue Heron Bridge. I asked if I could drop the recyclables collected during the cleanup in his recycle bin. From there it turned into a meeting of the like-minded and I knew at that moment that we would be working together on future conservation projects.
Jim invited me back most recently for a cleanup that his crew at Jim Abernethy’s Scuba Adventures put together with three of the non-profits they support. I was blown away how this large group of people from different walks of life came together as a family of concerned citizens who deeply care about their coastal community environment.
One such non-profit, Operation: Blue Pride, is a group dedicated to the message that “the Ocean needs an Army.” Conceived as a documentary project, Jim originally envisioned Operation: Project Blue Pride as a means to save the ocean, but discovered along the way that the benefit was mutual. “The Ocean is saving them,” Jim explained, referring to our veterans and heroes who have been injured. According to research over the last few years, diving improves the life of injured veterans. “Being underwater actually negates PTSD,” Jim said. In fact according to John Hopkins Medicine, a group of veterans with spinal cord injuries found relief from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and muscle movement improvement after diving for just four days.
The mission of Operation: Blue Pride is to get veterans underwater, in service to veterans and the ocean, particularly sharks. Jim Abernethy and his team of diving mentors and instructors get veterans certified, but also take them out to see sharks in the natural environment, teach them about shark and ocean conservation, and enable them to become mentors for other veterans as well as a positive voice for sharks. Jim describes Operation: Blue Pride as “veterans saving sharks and in-turn saving themselves”.
Scuba diving is big business in the West Palm Beach area and keeping the area attractive to divers is a large part of making sure the local economy is thriving. The nearby Blue Heron Bridge at the Phil Foster Park is one such area. World renowned for its diverse marine life and ease of access, Blue Heron Bridge was chosen as the best dive site in the world by PADI’s Sport Diver magazine in 2013. Still, many locals have no idea what lies beneath the surface. As Jim would say, “it is important that locals realize what they have.” In an effort to bring awareness, conservation, and youth empowerment together, non-profit Project Seahorse teaches locals how to swim and snorkel at no-cost. Project Seahorse also teaches local youth about marine life that needs their support and protection, the importance of local ecology, community environment sustainability, and how that in-turn relates to their well-being.
Local supporter, Dana Fahey, stated that “in 100 years from now, the only thing that really matters is the impact we have on the life of a child.” With Project Seahorse, these impacts are already having an effect, not only on the children themselves, but on an entire community that now realizes the value of this amazing resource right at their doorstep.
Another group that supports this local synergy is “Rising Tide Shark Pride.” Rising Tide is the name a local car wash that was started by Tom D’Eri. At just 25 years old, Tom was the youngest to win the Miami Herald’s 20 Under 40 Award, and if you were ever to meet him and his family, you would understand why. Tom was inspired by his brother Andrew and thoughts he had while on a scuba diving trip with Jim Abernethy and his crew. He started a car wash business that trains young adults who have autism and offers them a career. For a business that usually has high staffing turn-over, the Rising Tide Car Wash has had zero turn-over. The car wash is a huge part of the local community, and has embraced local ecological sustainability efforts with Rising Tide Shark Pride, a collaborative effort between Tom and Jim. The program provides training and education for young adults to learn about local ecology, being underwater, and using the knowledge to further conservation efforts — specifically shark conservation.
I spoke with one of Jim’s newest team members, Josh Childress, who has traveled over 40 countries as a dive instructor and he finds that “Jim is one of the most inspirational people” that he has ever met and how “unique he is to the dive industry” because of his efforts using social action and conservation to bring a community together. Josh described his reason for coming to work there because of Jim’s “passion for conservation”. To know Josh, you would certainly know that he is a huge movie fan, but finds that “Jaws” and “Shark Week” are the perfect examples of creating sensationalistic fear that is not based on reality”. I met Josh as my instructor for the fairly new PADI Shark Conservation certification. He describes that certification as “one of the more important certification classes created in the last decade”. I would tend to agree, especially after learning that about 70 million sharks are being killed each year and shark species have been depleted by 90-100% worldwide.
All three of these social action organizations along with Jim Abernethy and his crew at Scuba Adventures work in harmony to embrace all the resources that a coastal community has to offer. These groups support those that might not ever get the chance to see some of those resources because they are hidden underwater. I think we could all learn a lot from what the West Palm Beach area and Jim Abernethy and his crew are establishing there. The evolving support system being created is something that is truly benefiting their coastal community and the region.
The Ocean and it’s diverse ecosystem bonds us all. Taking up 71% of the planet’s surface and 97% of the planet’s water, the ocean is something we all have in common no matter where we live, but in a coastal community it is also our responsibility to make sure the Ocean, including all marine life, is there and thrives for future generations to come. What I have learned from Jim and his crew is that we can not only do our part as an individual, but we can also share our experience, mentor, and encourage others to do the same.
* Photos by Jim Abernethy