Newton Eristhee commands attention without raising his voice. His knowledge of the ocean is as broad as his shoulders, and he’s always willing to share both. At the Sandals Dive Center in Castries Harbor, Saint Lucia, resort guests step into a waiting boat, imagining the Caribbean underworld they’re about to see. They’ve already seen plenty above water during the short ride from the resort to the dive center, passing trees full of tropical fruit and two girls literally skipping into a schoolyard. One of the dive instructors is about to provide clarity for everything they’ve seen and are about to see. It’s something he learned from Eristhee, who directs operations for CLEAR (Center for Livelihoods, Ecosystems, Energy, Adaptation, and Resilience) and is standing on a dock 20 feet away.
“What we are doing is the nexus between people and the environment,” the instructor says. “Everything and everyone is interconnected with the sea.”
Beyond the inlet, deep underwater, are reefs called Fairyland and Honeymoon. They’re as miraculous as their names. And the purpose of every dive, whether it’s around Saint Lucia, Jamaica, Grenada, Curaçao, or any of the eight islands where Sandals Resorts and Beaches Resorts have a presence, is to keep them miraculous.
“When we enhance the health of the reefs, we also enhance our lives,” Eristhee says. “To do that well, we rely on guests.”
This connection becomes pronounced during the Sandals Foundation’s ongoing 40-for-40 initiatives in celebration of Sandals’ 40th anniversary. Resort guests have the unique opportunity to use their eyes to take in the views, and to use their hands and fins to preserve those views.
It’s simple. Sandals, Beaches, and the Sandals Foundation exist because of the ocean. Employees and their families rely on the ocean. Guests come to enjoy the ocean. The discoverers of the resort locations, the late Gordon “Butch” Stewart and his son and current Executive Chairman, Adam Stewart, chose each beachfront spot because of their love for the ocean.
“That’s where everything starts,” says Adam Stewart. “In the ocean.” He uses the word “in” for a reason.
Like the Stewarts in Jamaica, Eristhee grew up on a Caribbean island. He spent most of his time surfing the waves around Barbados.
“I knew a lot about the ocean from being on it,” he says. “But when I learned to scuba dive at 18 years old … it revealed a whole new world to me.”
He became so intrigued that he pursued a master’s degree in marine resource management. The reefs were his labs. He’d conduct research in them for six hours a day. He eventually brought his experience, knowledge, and those broad shoulders into a partnership with Sandals, where more than 100,000 guests and local people throughout the Caribbean have been PADI-certified.
The dives are eye-openers, and the specific coral nursery dives take awareness to another level. Forty years ago, coral diseases were causing massive die-offs of the reefs and everything that relies on them. Overfishing added to the problem. But how do you convince people who fish for food to stay away from their favorite spots?
You don’t tell them. You show them.
The Sandals Foundation began to partner with local divers on the islands to take fisherfolk and local influencers underwater. They’d see how lobsters and fish feed, and how all life (including their own) can flourish only if the reefs also flourish. They are now among the Sandals dive instructors who show guests how to tend to the underwater coral gardens. Some are third-generation fishers. One young Saint Lucian woman was managing a restaurant in the U.S. and decided to come back home to learn how she could improve the marine environment. She’s now a full-on coral gardener.
“The first time I went down to the reef, I realized this is my passion,” she says, echoing the revelation of Sandals guests that join the gardeners underwater.
Together, resort guests and divers from Caribbean communities have planted upwards of 15,000 coral fragments. Like seedlings, they grow into coral trees and coral beds. They start the size of a finger and become as full as flower bushes. Guests then transplant parts of the coral onto reefs, which have become more resistant to disease, more diverse, and more stunningly gorgeous.
“The coral nursery dive is the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done on a vacation,” says Bob Isaac, who’s gone diving on each of his nine trips to Sandals Resorts in Jamaica and Saint Lucia. He’s returned to Saint Lucia twice to see how his previous coral plantings are growing.
“Doing this with divers in the community makes the experience even more special.”
That same kind of guest-community camaraderie comes into play on dives designed to defend the Caribbean Sea from a dangerous foe.
Divers like to use the phrase, “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but bubbles.” There’s one exception: Lionfish. They are not indigenous to the Caribbean. They prey on marine life and have no known predator in the sea.
This is where guests at Sandals are called to become proactive guardians of the ocean. The Sandals Foundation partners with experts on invasive species from the University of West Indies to train divers in Jamaica, Grenada, Antigua, and Saint Lucia to scout for lionfish, safely capture them, and remove them from the ocean.
Those divers then take resort guests to join them on immersive underwater adventure. The fee for the experience goes directly into training programs, so more people in coastal communities can continue the search and humane removal of lionfish daily.
As the number of divers increases, so does awareness and the health of the ocean and everything around it.
Ride out to a dive site with the coral gardeners, dive instructors, or lionfish captors. They consistently bring up a motivating factor for their ocean work.
“I’m thinking about my children and my children’s children,” says Chester Nathoniel.
Heidi Clarke, Executive Director at Sandals Foundation says the exact same thing when asked why Sandals ties the guest experience to marine conservation. “Everything is woven together,” she says of the staff, the guests, the beaches, the ocean, the fruit-bearing trees, and even those little girls skipping to school.
They are the thread to the future.
So, in appreciation of Sandals’ commitment to the long-term health of the ocean, PADI is donating 20 dive certifications and advancements to people living in the islands.
The Sandals Foundation is matching those 20 certifications, calling it the ‘Sea the Legacy of Love Scholarship’ to honor Gordon “Butch” Stewart, his love for the ocean, and to coincide with the 40-for-40 program.
The recipients could very well be the next marine biologists and the next dive instructors who will wow the next wave of resort guests and the next generations in their own communities. It’s already happening.
In Jamaica, the Sandals Foundation employs people in the coastal villages of Whitehouse and Boscobel to monitor the shores and to show how conservation has dramatically changed the lives of their own families. In schools throughout the Caribbean, children are learning why mangroves are so important to well-being. At Beaches Turks & Caicos, children and their parents can snorkel along the second biggest reef in the Western Hemisphere, which is less vulnerable now that divers have placed buoys to keep boats away.
Just two weeks before the opening of Sandals Royal Curaçao on June 1, the Sandals Foundation announced a partnership with the Netherlands’ AFC Ajax soccer club. Together with local recycling company Limpi, they are transforming fishing nets lost at sea and plastic from around the island into soccer goals for children at primary schools. It’s appropriately called “Future Goals.”
“We’re in a position to be proactive rather than reactive,” Clarke says.
On a Tuesday afternoon, a dive boat heads out to Honeymoon Reef off Saint Lucia while more than 500 miles away a 7-year-old boy kicks a ball into the back of the goal in Curaçao. The ball makes a quick shushing sound as it settles into the net, like the sound of surf hitting the beach.
“Everything is woven together,” says Clarke.