“I’m just blown away by it,” said Martha Watkins-Gilkes when we caught up with her on her return from the Diving Equipment and Manufacturers Show in Las Vegas during which she received the prestigious Wyland Icon Award. Gilkes, also a former recipient of the Wyland Ambassador Award after bringing the artist to Antigua to work with 150 children to create a life size mural at Yasco, is author of Diving Guide to the Eastern Caribbean and Shipwrecks of the Caribbean; and operates two diving businesses, Fanta-Sea Island Divers and Fanta-Sea Island Excursions. After more than 30 years in the business, she was psyched to be one of only six female recipients of the Wyland Icon award – presented each year since 2002 to ocean conservation standouts and pioneers.
Gilkes’ activism for whales, for the health of the coral reefs, for marine health, and for the environment in general – as the outspoken voice of the Antigua and Barbuda Independent Tourism Promotion Corporation – is well documented. Her love affair with the Caribbean and with life under the sea, in particular, began in her adolescence when she vacationed in Jamaica with her parents and went diving for the first time. “It was just a magic world,” she said. She would return to the Caribbean later as a Peace Corps volunteer and ultimately settle here, after first coming to Antigua for Race Week in 1978.
“Antigua was so pristine in those days,” Gilkes said, wistfully, even as she urged immediate action to preserve what remains of our marine environment. The dropping of anchors into the reefs – so integral to fisheries as a breeding ground for marine life – was identified as a specific problem, and the, admittedly costly placement and maintenance of permanent moorings was identified as a possible fix. She has wind that this may be in the works, and not a moment too soon; “…we need to take drastic action to preserve whatever coral we have,” Gilkes said. After all, as she noted, Antigua remains an attractive destination for beginning divers looking to explore in shallower waters.
Her trip to Vegas had another highlight, the hosting of the Kool Karibbean event, which raised more than US$30,000 towards scholarships offered by the Women Divers’ Hall of Fame. Gilkes is former president and fundraising chair of the body.
The event, she said, also promoted Antigua and Barbuda, thanks to the involvement of the country’s U.S. Tourism office and the contribution of auction prizes in the form of vacation packages by Curtain Bluff, Sugar Ridge hotel, Jolly Beach, Tree Tops, and the Antigua Yacht Club Marina. Given that the DEME is said to attract more than 10,000 industry leaders, Gilkes feels that “What Antigua got out of it on a very limited budget was quite significant.” She hinted at another joint effort in March.
Written by Joanne C. Hillhouse
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