With the ocean her passion and the source of her livelihood, dive shop owner Shannen Miller said The Bahamas can’t continue to take from it while ignoring its limits.
Miller, the proprietor of Shannen’s Scuba Safari, provides marine adventures ranging from underwater explorations to a PADI Reef Rescue Diver Specialty Course that allows participants to gain dive certification while engaging in reef restoration projects around New Providence.
“Our mission is to create more Bahamian divers and to promote awareness and involvement about our oceans to aid in the protection and conservation of marine life,” said the Nassau born, Andros raised business owner.
She believes there’s no shortage of reasons to protect the ocean – biodiversity, recreation and livelihoods.
As one of many businesses relying on the ocean for income, Miller is lending her voice to the chorus of scientists, environmentalists, marine advocates and other experts agitating for the government to break a logjam of permits and cut through new swathes of red tape inadvertently created with the passage of the Biological Resources and Traditional Knowledge Protection and Sustainable Use Act, 2020, which came into force last year.
The intent of the new law was to protect the country’s natural resources, ensuring it wouldn’t be exploited by foreign interests under the guise of research.
It’s had an unintended consequence, suspending the work of world class scientists from renowned institutions who sought to help Bahamians and businesses rebuild and rehabilitate underwater habitats while they study the marine ecosystems here. Aside from negatively impacting both local and foreign scientists across the board, the permit crisis is also severely hindering Bahamian graduate students engaged in research to fulfill requirements for their degrees.
Much of Miller’s coral restoration work is done in conjunction with local and international experts at the Perry Institute for Marine Science (PIMS) and its flagship coral restoration program the Reef Rescue Network (RRN), which supported her at critical junctures on her professional path.
However, for more than a year, the Perry Institute and the RRN have waited on research permits from the Department of Environmental Planning and Protection. While the Network and its partners have continued to maintain their growing coral nurseries, planting new corals to expand healthy coral communities has ground to a complete stop.
“The Perry Institute and the RRN are our friends not our foes in the fight to preserve marine resources in The Bahamas. I don’t understand why our government is choosing to cripple conservation non-profits and those that have done nothing but help restore coral reefs and ocean ecosystems that are important to our culture and economy,” said Miller.
“When you look at the coral nursery, and you’re ready to clean it and you see how dirty it is, covered in algae you feel like it’s going to take forever. But then when you’re done cleaning and out planting it looks so wonderful, you get that feeling like ‘yes I did a good job, I just helped save the ocean.’ It’s amazing,” noted Miller, who is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in marine biology and sustainable aquaculture, with a concentration in animal nutrition and behaviour from Unity College.
Miller’s love affair with the ocean began long before she established her dive shop back in February 2022.
“I used to work at Atlantis as an aquarist. All I wanted to do was to drive boats and be a boat captain, which I did. There were hardly any female boat captains at that time. In 2018, I switched gears and worked at Stuart Cove’s as an open water instructor. That’s where I met Hayley [Jo Carr, a PADI Master Instructor and director of the Reef Rescue Network] and was inspired to become the first Bahamian PADI course director,” explained Miller.
“Throughout my life I’ve worked in a male-dominated field, where women are constantly overshadowed. Only two percent of dive instructors in The Bahamas were women when I first started out.”
She added: “There is a lot of negativity that comes from people. There are a lot of males that say that you cannot do it. The only way to progress and thrive is for you to believe in yourself until you succeed.”
It’s not lost on Miller that against all odds she opened a dive shop at a time when reefs, the principal underwater attraction, are under attack like never before – from global warming and the ravaging impact of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) that’s wiping out hard coral reefs throughout The Bahamas, Florida and the Caribbean.
Moreover, the international partners she has come to depend upon have been largely sidelined. Not one to sit idly by, Miller and her Shannen’s Scuba Safari joined the RRN, the largest coral restoration initiative in The Bahamas.
She’s contributing by maintaining her own coral nursery and has committed to working with RRN staff and local volunteers to grow and plant corals to regenerate the reefs around New Providence.
Shannen’s Scuba Safari is one of more than 30 Reef Rescue Network partners growing nearly 8,000 corals on 14 different islands, 12 of which are in The Bahamas.
The dive shop’s relationship with RRN spun out of Miller’s ties to PIMS, the non-profit scientific organization specializing in ocean research, conservation and education for more than 50 years.
The Perry Institute launched the Reef Rescue Network in 2017. Hayley-Jo Carr, PIMS’ marine conservationist and its PADI course director serves as director of the Network.
Through PIMS, Miller completed her Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) Instructor Development Course (IDC) Staff Instructor, an extremely valuable certification within the dive industry which allows her to train new PADI leaders. PIMS is also supporting Miller on her journey to becoming a PADI Master Instructor, following in the footsteps of Carr.
In fact, it’s the combine efforts of PIMS and RRN that created the Reef Rescue Diver specialty course with PADI. It’s a scuba diving certification program specifically designed for coral restoration that Miller and other local dive shop operators can offer to guests.
Despite their track record – the Perry Institute alerted Bahamian authorities to SCTLD presence in The Bahamas and RRN trained 70 PADI reef rescue diver instructors and created a shareable, digital database of all coral restoration efforts – both organizations have found themselves battling permit problems of late, rather than helping turn the tide in the fight against stony coral tissue loss disease.
As it now stands, without government permit from the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, the Reef Rescue Network could lose more than USD $1 million of research funding from global partners who see the value in funding marine research and conservation efforts.
Said Miller: “Our country is on the frontlines of climate change and our coral reefs will be on the brink of collapse if we do nothing. The Bahamas needs all of the allies and financial assistance it can muster in helping to preserve our oceans for future generations.”