Remember William Shatner’s narration at the start of each Star Trek episode, describing the mission of the Starship Enterprise “…. to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before”?
I was reminded of those words when speaking recently to Jim Gatacre, founder of the Handicapped Scuba Association. Jim was recalling his first scuba trip to Divi Flamingo Beach Resort in Bonaire. He told me that Divi Flamingo Beach Resort was a “pioneer” for being one of the first Caribbean resorts (if not, the first) to not just welcome, but seamlessly accommodate handicapped scuba divers.
Merriam-Webster’s definition for pioneer is: “a person or group that originates or helps open up a new line of thoughts or activity or a new method or technical development.” Well, that puts Jim in the pioneer category, too. He started his organization in 1981 with a mission to bring a new world and a new life to wheelchair bound people through scuba diving. Then and now, Jim boldly takes people where they haven’t gone before – under the sea. Today the HSA teaches diving, trains people to be dive buddies for disabled divers and certifies instructors to teach diving to people with disabilities all over the world.
Only two years after founding the HSA, the group sponsored its first guided dive trip outside the US. The destination was Bonaire, chosen for its clear, calm, warm waters teeming with aquatic life. To make the trip a reality, his fledgling organization sought hotel donations for trip participants. Divi Flamingo Beach Resort was the first to respond, and with four free vacation stays. Knowing that diving would be the easiest thing his group would do while in Bonaire, he made a request of Divi management: build a few ramps. He still marvels at their response to do whatever it took to make the trip a success.
In the intervening thirty years, his organization has returned to Divi Flamingo Beach Resort at least 27 times. (He can’t remember exactly, he said.) The water around the island of Bonaire is still crystal clear, but the hotel has changed – continually improving as a destination for handicapped divers year after year. In Gatacre’s words, “Divi started good and they stayed good.”
Gatacre conferred another title on Divi, that of leader. “Divi Flamingo Beach Resort has been an inspiration to a lot of other destinations to improve their facilities for wheelchair bound travelers.” The hotel together with the dive operation, Divi Dive, prides itself on accessibility on land and sea and playing gracious host for a memorable vacation experience. “When we leave Divi Flamingo Beach,” Gatacre said, “we always feel like we are leaving friends behind.” Lots of people feel the same way.
Back in 2010, Divi invited NBC News to Bonaire to share the story of some young men from Texas who took up scuba diving for its physical and psychological benefits after paralyzing sports activities. It’s a wonderful story told by NBC correspondent Jenna Wolfe. You’ll like it as much as the Today Show hosts did.