Our involvement with Haiti started from a vision inspired by Ms. Jamie Aquino, an educator in Florida who, motivated by both the Haitian community and marine environment that surrounds her, collaborated with WDC to develop an outreach program to connect her students with youth in Haiti. With a focus on supporting local communities within Haiti and the marine environment, through Jamie’s dedication and our collaboration, the Pier2Pier project initiated in 2008 has morphed into the Haiti Ocean Project. What started as an initiative to link students in Florida with their peers in Haiti, this growing coalition represents over five years of exploratory and collaborative work between educators, marine mammal specialists, non-profit organizations, and members of the Haitian community interested in the protection of Haiti’s marine environment and development of economic and educational opportunities that both promote Haiti’s natural beauty and provide alternative income to local communities.
Marine mammals have been poorly studied in Haiti and almost nothing is known about their distribution in Haitian waters. The Haiti Ocean Project is a multinational initiative between educators, field researchers and non-profit organizations of the United States, Dominican Republic and Haiti that was launched with a goal towards developing a pilot project to document, raise awareness and promote the protection of marine mammals in Haiti; facilitate cooperation and support for Haitian environment ministries; conduct educational outreach to students and local communities; conduct capacity building and training for local fisherman; and evaluate the potential for local ecotourism involving whale and dolphin watching. Informal field surveys conducted to date in the Gulf of Gonave, Haiti, have documented the presence of sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) and dwarf sperm whales (Kogia simus), as well as at least three species of dolphins: bottlenose (Tursiops truncatus), pantropical spotted (Stenella attenuata), and short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhyncus). A female humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) tagged in the Marine Mammal Sanctuary of the Dominican Republic was observed to travel west into Haitian waters, the first record of this species there.
Over the course of the last five years and through its Pier2Pier roots, Jamie has delivered laptops and Adobe software to children in Petite Riviere de Nippes and La Gonave, brought students from Florida to Haiti to build friendships, secured and delivered a viewing scope for shore-based observations, developed a fledgling sightings network with local fishermen, documented various species of whales and dolphins, received recognition twice from the U.S. State Department for her student-produced web initiative, and forged valuable relationships with a diversity of stakeholders interested in protecting Haiti’s natural heritage while promoting awareness, ecotourism, and hope within local communities. The program has received international attention, both within academic and scientific circles where the program was presented to the Society for Marine Mammalogy Biennial Meeting in 2011 in Tampa, Florida, and was acknowledged by the U.S. State Department’s ‘Doors to Diplomacy’ program where the program received awards and recognition on two separate occasions in 2008 and 2011.
Former blogs detailing our outreach in Haiti reflect on the devastation that was wreaked by the massive earthquake of January 2010, our connection with local communities, and our meetings with relevant ministries ranging from agriculture and fisheries, to tourism and education. Within these earlier blogs you will find the spark of hope of what this outreach might bring, and what paths might be inspired by the connections forged through the vision and foresight of a growing coalition of individuals and experts interested in the somewhat unchartered territory that Haiti offers to anyone interested in traveling to its relatively undisturbed waters.
WDC would like to recognize one of these very bright ‘sparks of hope.’ Through our outreach in Haiti, there has been one student that has stood out and embraced the project and its mission. Mendy Calixte, a student at the St. Anthony school of Padua (Complexe Educatif de St. Antoine-CESA) school in Petite Riviere de Nippes, a rural fishing village approximately 80 miles southwest of the capital of Port Au Prince, has taken personal initiative to stay involved in our project and raise awareness within his community. More recently, Mendy has served as a local model and example by encouraging refuse to be disposed of properly rather than on the beaches, composing educational videos of the marine environment, and working with fishermen to return sea turtles to the ocean when accidentally or deliberately captured in fishing nets, rather than eating them. More recently, Mendy filmed a large group of dolphins from his doorstep, revealing the rich diversity of marine life in Haiti’s waters as well as his heart-felt enthusiasm for seeing such beautiful creatures so close to shore. He also retrieved a whale skull from the shallows with the help of local fishermen and is currently verifying local reports that this whale may have been deliberately killed, which will serve to better our understanding of local threats to these species.
Mendy has shown just how powerful one individual can be through his dramatic influence within his community. Now, WDC is pleased to announce that Mendy will have the opportunity to share his enthusiasm, creativity, and passion with even greater numbers as he attends college in the U.S. through a full scholarship provided by the Adobe Foundation and Institute for Environmental Education. Mendy will be the first student from the school to attend university in the United States, and represents that hope for Haiti envisioned by the Haiti Ocean Project. By serving as a voice and ambassador for Haiti and its environment, Mendy intends to study environmental science and continue to support the Haiti Ocean Project, while moving towards a bright future. Because of Jamie and the Project, one student has been inspired to pursue an alternative pathway that will take him from his small village in Haiti to obtain a quality education that will return limitless possibilities for the future of Haiti and its marine environment. WDC sends its heartfelt congratulations to Mendy and his continuing dedication to the Haiti Ocean Project, and his commitment to being a voice for the whales, dolphins and local communities in Haiti.