Zoona Naseem believes diving is key to coral conservation in the Maldives

(CNN) — Zoona Naseem led nine children, some as young as eight, to the open waters of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, where they recalled a list of memories: switch to regulators, inflate the flotation devices, change the masks.

“If you’re having trouble with your ears, we’re not going down,” she yelled before the group took the plunge. “Going deep isn’t the most important thing. The most important thing is to enjoy the dive.”

Naseem founded and runs the Moodhu Bulhaa Dive Center, a 10-minute boat ride from the Maldivian capital, Malé. Unlike many of the country’s dive schools, which are resort-based and geared towards tourists, Naseem primarily caters to local women and children.

Naseem certifies children as young as eight years old to dive.

Sylvain Dumond

“I have a dive center here to teach people to love the ocean,” she explained. “If someone doesn’t love the reef, they won’t think twice about throwing plastic in the ocean. But if they love the reef, they’ll do everything they can to not throw it in.”

Breaking Barriers

Naseem is the second Maldivian to be certified as an instructor by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) and the first woman in the country to achieve this status. Only about 1,000 people worldwide have earned this title, which is the highest professional rating for recreational diving according to PADI.

“When I went for my instructor training, there were no women. That was about 26 years ago,” she said. “I chose this (career) because I wanted a challenge. I wanted to prove that girls can do many things.”

Naseem teaches up to two dozen students to scuba dive at any given time.

Naseem teaches up to two dozen students to scuba dive at any given time.

Sylvain Dumond

Naseem taught scuba diving at resorts across the country. However, in 2016 she decided to start her own establishment on the small island of Villingili – partly to spend more time with her own children, but also in the hopes of inspiring other Maldivians to follow in her footsteps.

“If I worked at a resort, I would probably make more money and probably live an easier life,” Naseem said. “But I chose to start something here to open the door for (kids).”

Look forward to something

In 2018, Naseem participated in a program called “Farukoe”, a government-led initiative that aims to get every student snorkeling within the year. She recalls hearing that many teens had never been in the ocean — which not only shocked her, but prompted her to do more.
Whether diving or snorkeling, Naseem believes that all children should learn to feel comfortable in the water.

Whether diving or snorkeling, Naseem believes that all children should learn to feel comfortable in the water.

Sylvain Dumond

In addition to offering diving lessons in Villingili, Naseem says she has petitioned the Maldivian government to build a naval academy, which will provide the opportunity to learn about all aspects of the underwater world. She also hopes to open a mobile diving school that will travel across the country to teach as many children as possible to dive.

“In the Maldives, we are 99% water and only 1% land,” she said. “So I think the ocean should be the children’s playground.”

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