Alvin Jackson, a founding member and chairman of the Roatan Marine Park and co-proprietor of Chillie’s and Native Sons dive shop in West End, was born near Calabash Bight on Roatan’s East End in 1955. He moved to West End with his family when he was 12 and has lived there ever since. He has been involved with SCUBA diving on Roatan nearly 40 years and personally named many of the dive sites around the island. He spoke with us in his garden overlooking Half Moon Bay September 27.
BIV: How has West End changed since you were growing up here?
Jackson: We didn’t have electricity. We didn’t have cars. We didn’t have lawyers on the island. We didn’t have politicians. We didn’t have police. … It was a fishing island. But the island was big enough that my father used to have cows. He used to have pigs and chickens. … Back then an island home, you used to have chickens. Every family when they moved from one place to the next, as soon as you get settled, you end up building a little pig area, where you got one or two pigs and you lock them up. … We grew corn, bananas, vegetables, beans, casava … potatoes, pumpkins … Everything we needed we grew … So it wasn’t really hard to get your meals. … The ocean was really there in abundance. It was the one reliable thing that we had. After hurricanes came and trashed a lot of what we had, then we would always rely more on the fishing.
BIV: Was it a lot easier to catch things then than it is now?
Jackson: Oh yeah. There was a lot more of everything: conchs, lobster … right in the bay here. We fished right in this bay, and on the outside, just along the reef. … You’d go out there, you’d get it and you’d come back in. … We didn’t have a fridge. We just caught what we needed for that day.
I look back at it now and thinking, “Man, they were the good days.” They were really the good days. … There was things that didn’t exist. For instance, I don’t know if they were here and we didn’t recognize it, but things like depression didn’t exist. … For some reason back then, 50 years ago, 40 years ago, people on this island, in this community, you could easily walk down the road and see half a dozen or a dozen people in a small community like this 80-90 years old, some of them up to 100. There are not any anymore. So something has gone different. … In each individual we have all of these problems, mental and physical problems that is brought on by stress and development and the growth that came upon us … We’ve become like the rest of the world. And is that a good thing? I don’t know.
Were we happier when we were miserable? Maybe. I feel like we were.
BIV: I think there’s a tendency for people to idealize whatever the era of their youth was. You get to be our age and start thinking everything was better when you were 20.
Jackson: But when we take our ages out of it and look at it in a more global sense, that’s when I feel more strongly about it. … I feel just as young as I did then … I’m lucky. I feel pretty good. I enjoy a good meal and a good hard day’s real physical labor and a good night’s sleep. … Doctors wasn’t here (50 years ago). There was one that I knew growing up, and that was Dr. Polo, Polo Galindo. He was an amazing man. He worked whether there was money to get or not. … If there was a need, he’d do it. That’s the kind of people he was. … He was one of the men that, when he died, I was old enough to see what was happening, and they called it “development.” But when he died, I thought, and I still think this … “Who among us is prepared to take their place, with the moral values?” … When I think about where we are, there’s no one taking these people’s place as they die off. Our moral compass is all screwed up. … That’s what makes me feel like they maybe were the better days, not just taking a bearing from my age, because I was full of youth.
BIV: So how did you get into the SCUBA diving business?
Jackson: At a time that I was quite young, 18, the island … wasn’t much going on. There were a lot of people going out … to work as merchant marines … My father did it. His parents did it … my older brothers did it. And I was the next in line. But somewhere around about that age of my life, the owners of Anthony’s Key, who was Paul Adams, an old American man, turned up here on the island. I think he was one of the first investors or someone doing something to provide employment … And I recall hearing the rumor up and down the island that he was going to set up a dive shop … It came the need for him to have people to be dive guides. … He was a very good man. … He got in touch with local people who wanted employment. … My brother Herbie was doin’ it before me. He was a dive instructor … Right on I came in … me, Herbie, Sammy Wesley, Tino Monterroso, Edward Galindo … we’re all that generation that was in there naming sites up and down … some put their name on it … Herbie’s Fantasy, Herbie’s Place … Tino Monterroso was one who worked with training me. My older brother trained with him. … They were like a year or so ahead of me. Tino and my brother went away to get certified. By that time (when I came along), they could certify people here. This was before PADI was around…. It was YMCA I think were the ones, using the Jefferson Manual.
I think the only one that went off and formed a dive shop (apart from Anthony’s Key) was Tino. … My brother worked there ’til he retired, and I think Sammy Wesley did. And I was the next one who left there to start my own business.
BIV: How did you come up with the name “Native Sons?”
Jackson: For many many years I was dreaming about the dive shop. Native Sons was the name I had in my head since I worked at AKR … When I left there I went to work for a period of time for Bay Islands Beach Resort, managing their dive shop. It’s not around anymore…. I sort of felt proud of myself, my island … All the other dive shops, and probably still is, most of them is owned by foreign investors. … My kids was small, and I thought, maybe they would come along and work in the dive business together. (Jackson’s son Reno now runs the SCUBA Roatan dive shop up the road from Native Sons). But I don’t know that I would recommend it (going into dive business today). I’m starting to wonder about it.
BIV: Why wouldn’t you recommend it? What has changed?
Jackson: There was less dive shops … I think it was about eight (in West End). And West Bay didn’t have any. … But that’s not … the competition … that’s not the reason why I would not recommend a dive shop. … It’s more of a global thing. It more has to do with the product we’re selling. You could build the fanciest boat in the world. You can buy the fanciest equipment in the world. But what are you going to give these people after they’re dressed up in all this fancy equipment? It’s supposed to be a nice healthy reef, where marine life and corals and everything is in abundance. If you don’t have that, that fancy-assed boat that you took them out on, that state-of-the-art regulator and all of that elaborate talk that you do, in my opinion, doesn’t mean anything. … I don’t see enough conscientious effort made in our local authorities and local people and communities … to ensure that we will have something to show these people 10 years down the road, 15 years down the road.
BIV: Do you see less on a typical dive now than you did 20 years ago?
Jackson: Oh definitely, definitely, definitely! … Right out here in Half Moon Bay in front of us … was an amazing dive site. On any given day, any time of the day you could get in there and find a dozen or two barracudas – huge ones, just meandering around … You could find a dozen, two dozen groupers … just wandering around the reef. … It was just more fishes! … Lobsters, conchs … they’re gone. … The corals: I think we’ve only got about 40 percent of the hard coral cover that we had 30 years ago. … The sponges, 30 years ago, right out here, there were huge barrel sponges, the big purple ones. … There was these huge sea fans, probably three foot wide … bright purple sea fans, just waving. Now, these things has fallen victim, and they’re almost all gone, to what we’re doing on the island. … When I say I’m not sure of the future of it (the dive business), it’s because of the deterioration in the reef and the marine life that’s out there.
Although, when you talk to people … I talk to people who do dives in other parts of the Caribbean and other parts of the world … They say, “You guys got a good reef!”… The cruise shippers who within a week have done three or four different dives in the Caribbean … all the ones that I speak with say, “Oh, we were disappointed with this other place … but this area is wonderful! We didn’t see a turtle in any of these places, and we saw three!” … I try to feel encouraged when people say this and go along with it, because, just when you think you’re in bad shape, look at someone else, you know. … The numbers are going up of turtle sightings. We did our own little survey here. It immediately started climbing since we started the Marine Park (in 2005).
BIV: What is the Marine Park doing to try to turn things around?
Jackson: We try to protect the reef. … We take the National Police with us on our patrols, and they does their job. … And we pick people up and confiscate nets and do all of that. But in my opinion, governing people, laws, big guns and bad-ass police, that’s a small part. If we could educate the people, then the people within their hearts, kids in the school level, starts to see and starts to feel what I feel.
Yeah we need the police out there … because there’s those who isn’t gonna just listen. But I think we can do a lot more. So I think that that’s the area where we can … I should be out there every day in these communities talking to people…. We have staff doing it, and they’re doing a good job. … but it’s only a limited amount of staff … in the education department, we only got one, and we need about four of those out there, just like her.
The Marine Park started a program … to train and offer scholarships … to qualify and train these people that are 17-18, doesn’t have anything, doesn’t have a guideline as far as where he want to be the next 10 years except for poaching a lobster to eat and a conch and spearin’ fish and killin’ turtles. We developed this program to educate people to become … dive masters and dive instructors. … We get people to come in. We assign them to a dive shop. … a reduced price … the instructors get their commission; the shop covers its cost … that money comes from a grant that we got … Even so, I don’t think we have one that we could say that became a dive instructor under that program. We have a lot that came and started three months ago when we first kicked off this thing. … and got through the Open Water course and was supposed to come back for the Advanced course. They haven’t. They didn’t come back. So it’s that old saying we got here on the island: You can take the horse to the water but you can’t make him drink. So it seems like it’s more work needed.
One would think that you would have people knocking your door down to become a part of this and get a job. But it’s still, as you walk up and down this community, you can see there’s foreign people doing these jobs as dive instructors. Probably about 98 percent is from other countries. And it’s not because we didn’t offer.
BIV: What is it that’s depleting the marine life?
Jackson: Development and the misuse of our land. … Like right now, this hot dry season, people was cuttin’, bulldozers were cuttin’, people is fillin’ in wetland … this guy comes and he takes a bulldozer and he flattens a hilltop to do some construction. Takes that same soil and sells it to someone else who needs to fill in a swamp, a wetland somewhere, to make real estate … Then the summer time goes away, the rainy season comes down, and the runoff begins. … There’s literal mud … it fills this whole bay.
I find these big barrel sponges … in the summertime when there’s no rain and no runoff, they become nice and clean bright purple. You put your hand over the hollow tubular outlet … you can feel a pressure, because they collect oxygen through the water by the flow of of oxygen and the current pushing it through the walls … and then it jets upward … That’s how he breathes … But then we get the rainy season and the water that runs out there is carrying hundreds of tons of particle mud, and he’s still sucking in and shootin’ it out the middle, that just coats it … That beautiful purple sponge is just standing there brown! … I’ll swim around, keeping my hand 6 or 8 inches away from touching the trunk and just kind of wave it like that … What leaves that sponge is like a weightless dust. … it slowly, like something in slow motion, just leaves the sponge … what appears before your eyes is that bright purple … if you’re in time. Sometimes I’ve done that, and that purple isn’t there. It’s white. And that one is over. He isn’t going to come back. You go back a week, two weeks, a month later, and you find he’s all crumbled.
Thirty years ago when it rained, this bay used to stay relatively clear. It didn’t change much. Because we had no bulldozers on the land. It’s a big mess, all because of development. All because of no planning.
Now could this have been avoided? I think it could … if there is the political will, if the people is told how to build on their land. Let the land dictate to us. … We could build on any steep slope … moving very minimum amount of soil. That’s the thing. We’re not talkin’ about cuttin’ it out and stoppin’ people from investing. But before a guy come here and within one year he buys some real estate, split it up, flatten it out, fill up the wetlands nearby, trash the place and make flat land to build on … that shouldn’t happen. … At the same time, there’s a little man working that machine (bulldozer) that gets to pay his child’s school…. that gets to pay his rent … he gets to buy some food. … I feel like all we need is some clever leaders on this island … people who really care.
I’m not blaming us alone for our reef. I find that some years the water temperature gets much hotter than it used to. … I have very limited knowledge about this greenhouse effect. … But I know for sure that this water gets much warmer than it used to 20 and 30 years ago. … So how do we deal with that? It could be a global thing. What I see is the runoff. We can do something about that.
BIV: How has the dive experience changed over the years?
Jackson: The diving itself and the training techniques has improved. … Equipment has improved a whole lot. … Safety has gotten better. … More people gets in the water and a lot less accidents. It’s gotten in my opinion almost too conservative now. … When someone tells me, “We’re doing 90 foot but we can’t stay but 24 minutes” … I go about thinking … 30 minutes was the limit for 90 foot 20 years ago. … The human body, physics hasn’t changed. What has happened? … They opened it up again to get more people in the water. And with that, we gotta be more careful.
And training has become not just safety but more environmentally conscious training is happening. And therefore I think the divers is some of the most conscientious people about the environment and the reef.
Our actions is really destroying our livelihood … The thing that gives us that fancy lifestyle is the environment. We can’t get around that. This island has one thing going for it. That’s our reefs. Yeah, we got lovely beaches. So does the rest of the world. And maybe some pretty womens and good rum. That’s all good stuff. But the main thing that attracted people and still do to this island is the diving.