Zoona Naseem led nine children, some as young as eight years old, out towards the open waters of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, rattling off a list of reminders: switch to regulators, inflate buoyancy control devices, adjust the masks.
“If you have any problems with your ears, we are not going to go down,” she called out before the group took the plunge. “Going deep is not the most important thing. The most important thing is to enjoy the dive.”
Naseem founded and runs the Moodhu Bulhaa Dive Centre, a 10-minute boat ride away from the Maldivian capital of Malé. Unlike many of the country’s scuba diving schools, which are based at resorts and target tourists, Naseem primarily serves local woman and children.
“I own a dive center here to educate people to love the ocean,” she explained. “If somebody doesn’t love the reef, they won’t think twice about throwing plastic into the ocean. But if they love the reef, they will make every effort not to throw it in.”
Naseem is the second Maldivian to be certified as a course director by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), as well as the first woman in the country to achieve this status. Only about 1,000 people worldwide have earned this title, which is the highest professional rating for recreational scuba diving, according to PADI.
“When I went for my instructor course, there were no females at the time. That was about 26 years back,” she said. “I chose this (career) because I wanted a challenge. I wanted to prove that girls can do many things.”
Naseem went on to teach scuba diving in resorts across the country. In 2016, however, she decided to set up her own establishment on the tiny island of Villingili – partly to spend more time with her own children, but also in the hopes of inspiring others Maldivians to follow in her footsteps.
“If I worked in a resort, I would probably earn more money and I would probably live an easier life,” Naseem said. “But I chose to start something here to open the door to (children).”
In 2018, Naseem took part in a program called “Farukoe,” a government-led initiative that aimed to get every student snorkeling within the year. She remembers learning that many teenagers had never been in the ocean – which not only shocked her but prompted her to do more.
In addition to offering dive lessons in Villingili, Naseem says she has petitioned the Maldivian government to build a marine academy, offering the opportunity to learn about all aspects of the underwater world. She also hopes to open a mobile diving school, traveling the country to teach as many children as possible to dive.
“In the Maldives, we are 99% water and just 1% land,” she said. “So I believe the ocean should be the kids’ playground.”