Diving to Preserve Caribbean Ecosystems - Saba Island

words by Hannah Passamonte; photos submitted by Dahlia Hassell

Picture the top of a dormant volcano covered in rainforest, rising dramatically from the blue Caribbean Sea and you’ll find yourself dreaming of Saba.

Traveling to Saba means flying 12 minutes on a commuter plane from the neighboring island of St. Maarten, and landing on the shortest commercial runway in the world. One road connects the whole island as it winds through the trees and steep rocky terrain. Saba’s coastline is rugged and exotic, abruptly dropping off into the ocean. While the island may not have any beaches, it boasts great biodiversity.

There’s a reason why this island is nicknamed “The Unspoiled Queen”.

Diving to Preserve Caribbean Ecosystems - Marine Biology

Dahlia Hassell found her passion for the outdoors while growing up on this five-square-mile island. Embracing the beauty of her home, she works tirelessly to protect Saba Bank, the largest submerged atoll in the Atlantic with incredible biodiversity, as the Saba Bank Officer for the Saba Conservation Foundation.   

Hassell’s relationship with the ocean is somewhat of a love story. She holds long conversations about coral, her eyes light up when she talks about sharks, and she jumps at the chance to teach a diner how to identify the gender of their lobster dinner (yes, really).

As a young girl, Hassell knew she wanted to pursue a career in marine biology, specifically to study the behavior of sea creatures in their native habitats. But at 12 years old, she was faced with a harsh reality.

“I had bad asthma as a child and was told that I was never going to be able to dive,” Hassell says. “The doctors told me my health conditions were too severe and so I tried to push marine biology to the back of my head.”

Diving to Preserve Caribbean Ecosystems - Shark

While her mind told her to forget it, her heart whispered keep going. She did, and found herself volunteering at the marine park in high school.

Eventually, Hassell moved to Mississippi to pursue a degree in biology education before moving back to Saba. Back on the island, she discovered Sea & Learn, a non-profit program that uses the expertise of marine biologists to help educate locals on the value of Saba’s ecology and its importance to the region. The program opened Hassell’s eyes; she was once again hooked on the idea of becoming a diver.

But, Hassell says, “To really understand the sea someone must ‘become’ the fish,” something she couldn’t imagine accomplishing without diving.

So, seven years after her first doctor visit, she asked the doctor again about her ability to dive. After a series of tests and questions surrounding her lungs and last asthma attack, she was left praying for the “go-ahead”—and it was granted.

Diving to Preserve Caribbean Ecosystems - Saba Kids

Hassell became the first local to help with researching Saba Bank. Her days consist of regular dives, monitoring fisheries, organizing research of sharks, and sometimes dressing up as a shark to teach kids about the importance of protecting them.

“There have always been people working on research before me…they come from all parts of the world,” she says. “[But] usually locals aren’t involved…and I think it’s because we, the locals, never truly saw purpose for it before.”

Hassell’s dream is to open an environmental school on Saba where kids can learn about the ocean. She says sharing her knowledge of the ocean with others is paramount to her.

Diving to Preserve Caribbean Ecosystems - Saba Fish

“I learn more about life — how to respect, how to love — by being outdoors. I thoroughly enjoy teaching others about the outdoors and believe we need to make better kids for the world,” she says.

This appreciation came, at least in part, from her connection with the ocean. “Diving connected the heart of the ocean to mine,” she says.

Hassell says women sometimes have fear that they will be judged for seeming too forward with passion for the outdoors. But she counters this.

“Remember who you are and where you came from, but follow your heart. Do not be afraid to be yourself and to be your own outdoor woman,” she says before sending off an email signed with her trademark “Best fishes”.

. . .

Diving to Preserve Caribbean Ecosystems - HannahAbout the Author

Hannah Passamonte who lives by the words “Draw near to what makes you come alive.” She is currently a Tennessee-based writer who graduated from Lipscomb University with a degree in International Business and Social Entrepreneurship. She says,”Hawaii is home but I’ve grown up in Micronesia, Saudi Arabia, The Philippines, Chile, and Hong Kong. Adventure is a part of my lifestyle, and I share a deep love for the outdoors and for strong community. Whether I’m hiking a mountain or surfing a wave, it’s the spiritual connection to the earth and the opportunity to participate in mutual gratitude toward the outdoors with others that makes me come fully alive.”

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