A Rising Tide

Empowering the next generation of ocean stewards

Eight Colorado students were selected for A Rising Tide.

Last fall a filmmaker invited high-school-aged students in the Denver, Colorado, area to submit short application videos for the "adventure of a lifetime." Three previously landlocked students would receive a scholarship that included an open-water scuba certification, a full set of dive gear, an introduction to the field of marine sciences and an all-expenses-paid dive trip to the Florida Keys to get their fins wet in the ocean for the first time. Meanwhile, their experience would be filmed and edited for an 18-episode web-based series called A Rising Tide.

Filmmaker Matt Abraxas dreamed up the project and set out building a team of professionals to help provide this opportunity for students who may not otherwise have had the opportunity to experience the ocean firsthand. The team he assembled included Graham Casden, founder of Ocean First, a scuba diving, swim and travel company based in Boulder, Colorado; Mehgan Heaney-Grier, champion freediver, television personality and now host of A Rising Tide; and Klara Fejer, digital media specialist at the nonprofit Ocean First Institute.

It wasn't easy for the small selection committee to choose just three scholarship recipients from a pool of dozens of deserving applicants, so Casden and the rest of the team ultimately chose to fund five additional, partial scholarships.

"It's important to bring youth into the underwater world. A program like this helps to onboard the next generation, introducing them not only to the magic of being underwater in the ocean, but also to some of the serious issues facing the ocean today," Heaney-Grier explained.

The judges selected Josh Johnston, Fatima Flores Almanza and Emily Sanchez for full scholarships. Johnston, a 17-year-old from Lafayette, Colorado, applied because he is interested in science and is considering marine biology as a career. Almanza, a 15-year-old from the Denver suburb of Erie, Colorado, shared in her video application her amazement that more is known about outer space than the ocean and expressed her desire to be a part of ocean discoveries. Sanchez, a 16-year-old from Longmont, Colorado, marveled at the thought of swimming in the ocean at all as she explained that she had "never even been snorkeling" and was "expecting the unexpected."

The scholars got used to the equipment and diving basics in the pool.
Despite growing up in landlocked Colorado, limited access to marine environments was not the only challenge these students faced throughout their journey. Like many teens, the scholars were learning how to balance their increasingly busy lives, juggling packed schedules of Advanced Placement classes and extracurricular activities. Additionally, Almanza shared with the group before beginning her dive certification that she did not know how to swim; she worked with the Ocean First swim instructors, however, to become more comfortable in the water and was able to channel her enthusiasm to help her overcome her initial hesitation.

By the end of the trip, all eight of the scholarship recipients had successfully completed their dive certifications. Supplementing their classroom lessons and pool sessions, the students were exposed to a well-rounded curriculum of ocean-focused talks and lectures from scientists and other experts in the field, covering topics such as plastic pollution, shark ecology, invasive species, marine protected areas, marine archaeology and career development options for the marine sciences.

Students learned about marine sciences with subject experts.
"The goal was to empower today's students to become tomorrow's ocean heroes," explained Heaney-Grier, who also served as the students' mentor throughout the semester.

"We wanted to show kids who might not otherwise get to experience the ocean that they have so many options to get involved in marine sciences and make a difference," Fejer added. "We really wanted to drive home the idea that we all have an impact on the planet and the ocean, no matter where we live."

After a semester's worth of pool practice as well as an unforgettable experience diving with sharks in the Denver Downtown Aquarium, the project culminated in the students' trip to the Florida Keys, where they conducted their open-water dives in the ocean at the beginning of the summer. Traveling to Florida was especially exciting for Sanchez, because it was the first time she had ever flown on an airplane. The initial excitement of flying soon morphed into feelings of exhilaration for everyone at the thought of diving in the ocean. "To be around the ocean and around marine life," Johnston said, "it's just not a thing we get to do every day."

Their journey concluded with their first experience in the open ocean.

As the semester was ending, students developed action items to ensure their interest and interaction with diving and conservation would continue beyond filming. Several students are now interested in studying marine sciences in college or exploring previously unrealized opportunities for involvement in the field.

Throughout the program the scholars talked a lot about the future and looked for ways to inspire others as leaders in diving and marine conservation.
"I love learning about how you can be part of ocean conservation even without being in the water at all times," Sanchez said. As a member of her school's speech and debate team, she is interested in pursuing a career in marine policy.

The group would like to repeat the scholarship process each year, with hopes of broadening the scope and expanding the program's reach.

"We are relying on the next generation to make a difference," Heaney-Grier explained. The first step for this involvement has been set into motion. The students from A

Rising Tide
are now not only certified scuba divers but also stewards of the marine environment, armed with the knowledge to make a difference and the hope to inspire others to do the same.

This program was possible with the support of many generous sponsors and partners, including Ocean First, Ocean First Education, Scuba Schools International, Mares, Divers Alert Network, Paralenz, ChicoBag and To-Go Ware, Stream2Sea, Prawno Apparel, Strawesome, NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries, Denver Downtown Aquarium, A-1 Scuba and Travel Aquatics Center, and Sea Dwellers Dive Center of Key Largo. Watch the episodes at arisingtide.tv.
Explore More
Meet the three full scholarship winners in this episode of A Rising Tide.

© Alert Diver — Q3 Summer 2018