The treasures to be found at Kids Sea Camp

My 11-year-old son, Jacob, is a treasure hunter. Wherever we go, his eyes dart here and there, scanning the floor for the next “piece de resistance.” Money is usually his favorite prize, but anything he can find will do. Because of his autism and ADHD, any public place can become a battlefield as he races to pick up newfound treasures.

But no land treasure to date has compared with what we found when we attended Kid’s Sea Camp at Buddy Dive Bonaire.

Kids Sea Camp, special needs, ADHD, Kids Sea CampJacob’s love for underwater exploration began with the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald, a cargo ship, he tells me, which was lost in the tumultuous waters of Lake Superior in 1975. Jacob has toured every nearby museum exhibit devoted to underwater sea creatures with rapt attention. One year, his only birthday request was a giant megalodon tooth.

So it did not come as a shock that when Jacob turned 10 this year, his only request was to become a scuba diver.

So his dad and I supported his quest. We were well informed about the research on water and its benefit to autistic children. Water therapy is a proven program that enables children to block out the noises known to overwhelm them. It provides the counterbalance to help them regulate their over-sensitive nervous systems, which may be one reason it decreases anxiety. Water is nature’s great equalizer to an autistic child. By extension, scuba diving provides exercise, fun, and therapy, as well as a base to develop life skills and confidence. We hope that Jacob will be able to use his new skills and knowledge of the ocean towards a long-term career in oceanography or marine biology, bridging his two loves.

Since Jacob and I have become PADI certified divers,  we have enjoyed exploring reefs and marine life in the Caribbean Islands, however, none were as kid-friendly and pristine as the reefs of Bonaire.

I had never heard of Bonaire until I stumbled upon the website for Kids Sea Camp, a family business that has certified more than 6,000 children since its inception years ago.

The owners, Margo and Tom Peyton, have brought their love of the ocean, scuba diving and family together to create the unique Kids Sea Camp program.

Their list of accolades is impressive: No. 1 World’s Best Family Dive Vacation 2014 by Sport Diver Magazine and USA Today Reader’s Choice Award recipient, the Travel Channel’s  Traveler’s Best Family Vacation 2015 and the PADI President’s Award of Excellence.

Margo was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame for her contribution to marine education with children and diving. But the thing that swayed me to participate in this program with Jacob is that Margo and Tom are parents who created these family trips to enjoy with their own kids. Initially, I was a little apprehensive. After all, we had never met, and this was a weeklong commitment to the company of strangers. But I have always been determined that my hesitations will not impact Jacob’s needs. I wanted him to better his world through scuba diving, to socialize and to have fun, all while enjoying the safety provided by Kids Sea Camp and Buddy Dive.

One of the best parts, I was able to participate in Jacob’s camp too.  At Kids Sea Camp, the student to instructor ratio is 2:1, enabling the dive instructors to take the time to teach the kids and listen to their needs.

In Jacob’s case, Margo arranged his own instructor, 1:1; this enabled him to have his needs met in order to make his week a huge success. With this level of quality care, I was able to step back and watch him earn his PADI adventure diving certification under the tutelage of others.

It truly was a vacation for both of us, and not only because Jacob was exhausted enough to sleep past 6:30 a.m. for the first time in his life.

Each morning started with a Buddy Dive overflowing buffet breakfast. One morning, Jacob grabbed some bread and, at the approval of the staff, went down to the dock to feed the fish. His smile and squeals of delight as the water erupted with schools of fish made the start of the day better.

After breakfast, we split into our own groups. Jacob connected with the other children over a mutual love of the ocean while I enjoyed diving with other parents. I was able to dive without concern for my son’s safety, a priceless gift to the parent of any child, let alone a young scuba diver with autism.

Jacob and I reconnected each day at 3:30 p.m., where I learned all about the cool things he had discovered. He would animatedly explain, his eyes dancing and arms waving, the sights of his day including, but not limited to, a small shipwreck, the crabs scuttling along the dock areas, the deep turquoise of a parrot fish, the large pincher on the lobster, the bright spots on the trunkfish and the five turtles he saw glide by him on his dive, as if he wasn’t even there.

The best adventure for Jacob was the kids night snorkel off the dock. His eyes were alight as he shared about the moray eel and “Charlie” the Tarpon, an under-dock resident of Buddy Dive. Due to these amazing experiences at Kids Sea Camp, Jacob discovered a deep love of underwater photography. The kids diving programs include a class on photography and a photo dive with Sealife cameras. This opened up another door for my son to grow his love of the ocean. 

One of my favorite things about Kids Sea Camp was the feeling of community, of inclusivity, between the staff and families.

The instructors went above and beyond to accommodate their charges. They were available to talk to the parents, joke with the kids and answer any questions, even if it meant extending their day. The staff participated in the graduation ceremonies, cheering students on as they presented their poems, a Sea Camp tradition where families write a poem about their week at camp.

So often Jacob’s disability makes him the odd man out, a shy outlier in a room full of children.  At Kids Sea Camp, Jacob was part of the action at every turn. Finding Kids Sea Camp was like finding buried treasure. I didn’t know it was there until I stumbled upon it. Now my life and the life of my son are forever changed, so much so that I have already booked our next Kids Sea Camp to return to Buddy Dive Bonaire.

Thank you, Margo and Tom. Our lives are better for having participated in your vision.

By Alyson Herzig, writer, blogger, wife, and Kids Sea Camp mom