If you hang out with Ernst van der Poll long enough, you can sometimes convince him to tell you an underwater story. He’ll tell it with a South African accent and a surprising amount of humility, considering that the content sounds straight out of Hollywood thriller.
One time when he was snorkeling, he came across a tiger shark eating a dead sea turtle. It was pretty incredible to watch, until the shark decided Ernst was competition and charged him. Acting on instinct, Ernst punched the shark in the nose and stuck his hand through its gills, wrangling it as it pulled him underwater.
Then there was the time Ernst was hired as the underwater bodyguard for a royal family from the Arabian Gulf. After rescuing one of the prince’s friends from a spearfishing excursion-turned-shark-attack, Ernst was rewarded with a shiny new F150 truck.
Spend any amount of time with Ernst, a 36-year-old with a football player’s stature, and it will seem he’s spent more of his life under the water than above it. Oddly enough, the most fascinating aspect of his underwater career has nothing to do with dramatic shark tales or Baywatch-style rescues. Instead, it is his work with an organization called Disabled Divers International (DDI). DDI brings scuba diving to the disabled community – to people facing physical barriers caused by life-changing accidents, war injuries or birth defects.
Research coming out of Johns Hopkins University shows diving to be a powerful rehabilitative tool for its ability to get people moving, unencumbered by gravity or any physical barriers. The blind, the paralyzed and even individuals missing limbs can benefit. “Nature has a tremendous healing power – especially the ocean,” Ernst said in his thick accent. “Sometimes when people are injured in situations like this, the self-esteem is hurt more than the body.”
Ernst went on to describe how much he dislikes the word “disability.” “People with physical barriers are able,” he stated. “They are people who can achieve things and still make a success of their life. But it’s hard to change society’s perceptions.”
To understand Ernst’s passion for the handicapped, it helps to know a bit about his childhood. Ernst grew up in South Africa. When he was 14, he went on a church mission trip to a refugee camp in Mozambique – a country consumed by civil war. That’s where he first met a disabled person.
She was a frail orphan of about 10 years old. After stumbling upon a landmine, she was nearly blown to smithereens and subsequently abandoned by her parents. Suffering from severe post traumatic stress disorder, the child was catatonic and missing both legs. It was a miracle she survived.
As Ernst and his friends began interacting with the girl, her eyes began to sparkle and she smiled. Overseeing the visit, the woman in charge of the orphanage suddenly burst into tears. Ernst panicked, thinking they’d done something wrong. The woman quickly explained that no, they hadn’t done anything wrong – in fact, they’d done something incredibly right. The tears were because that little girl hadn’t smiled in years.
“The experience really hit home because I was only a few years older than her,” Ernst recalls nearly two decades later. “I thought, ‘I’m also an African, and that could have easily been me if there were a small difference in geography.’”
A decade later, as a direct result of this incident, Ernst became involved with a group in Dubai called the Palestinian Children Relief Fund (PCRF) – an organization that works with children sick or injured by conflicts in the Middle East. There Ernst met a 16-year old double amputee named Khalil, a boy who also made an impact.
In 2009, Khalil and his two brothers were taking shelter at their grandmother’s house in Gaza when an Israeli bomb dropped. One of Khalil’s siblings lost an eye, and the other lost his life. Khalil was knocked unconscious. When the rescue team came looking for survivors, they shone a light through the rubble. Someone noticed Khalil’s eyes shining in the darkness and pulled him out. The EMTs prayed over him in the ambulance, hoping he wouldn’t die.
Khalil pulled through, but lost his legs. He went from playing soccer one day, to a lifetime sentence in a wheelchair the next. Trying to cheer him up, Ernst asked Khalil if he wanted to dive.
Khalil said no. In Gaza, kids don’t go to the beach – only poor people go to the beach to wash their donkeys. Ernst was persistent, though, and diving soon became the new love of Khalil’s life.
In learning how to dive – something that even most able-bodied people are afraid of – Khalil realized something about his own abilities. He accomplished a task that he never in his wildest dreams thought possible. “It wasn’t about learning how to clear his mask or inflate his BCD or move through the water unassisted,” Ernst recalled. “It was about a paradigm shift. It was about making him realize he can achieve the unthinkable, in spite of what happened to him.” Khalil is now on his way to becoming a doctor.
Soon, Ernst realized that there were stories like this all around the world. After such a success using diving as therapy with PCRF, he was inspired to start a program in Dubai. Alongside Fraser Bathgate, the founder of Disabled Divers International, he designed a strategy to provide affordable scuba diving to the public. It was mostly subsidized by large corporate sponsors, and focused not only on teaching disabled people how to dive – but also on coaching instructors on how to teach disabled people how to dive. By teaching the teachers, they hoped to cause a domino effect and spread the cause – and it worked.
Divers were happy because they were given dive certification, plus an underwater Go-pro video camera to film the progress. Sponsors were happy because they received this video footage to blast on social media. Instructors were happy because they had one more course to offer at the dive shop. It was a win-win-win.
Shortly thereafter, Ernst met and married his Costa Rican wife, Maria Jose. The couple relocated to Costa Rica in 2012, and put plans in motion for a similar DDI program here: Sin Limites (Without Barriers). Ernst and Maria Jose made history in late September with the first disabled divers symposium in all of Central America. The event was held at the Four Seasons Resort on the Papagayo Peninsula, in the northwest Guanacaste province of Costa Rica. Nearly the entire Costa Rican Paralympic volleyball team came from San José for a taste of scuba diving.
In addition to providing subsidized “try dives” for the disabled community, the goal was to transform Costa Rica into a disabled diver travel destination. Local instructors were trained and returned to their respective dive shops with new knowledge and awareness. Buzos de Aventura in Guanacaste’s Playa Hermosa will be the first DDI center, and it aims to appeal to this niche market and bring more diverse tourism to the region.
In fact, offering DDI courses could be quite a commercial incentive to dive outfits in the area. “According to my research,” Ernst said, “the U.S. alone is home to somewhere around 3.5 million war veterans with a service-connected disability. To put that in perspective, that’s almost the entire population of Costa Rica.”
He also pointed out that Costa Rica is a great destination for people to come experience nature, learn to dive and be able to experience the joy of traveling. “Just because people have physical challenges, it doesn’t mean they don’t want to go on holiday or travel anymore,” he said.
In fact, Ernst maintains that diving is a small slice of his larger vision – to create opportunities for people of all abilities to engage in nature. “Maybe today Sin Limites is all about learning how to dive,” he said. “Maybe tomorrow it’s about something different, something far greater.”
Ernst hopes to unite like-minded people and catalyze change by forming strategic partnerships with local organizations like Wheels and Arms, a group that provides climbing, rafting, horseback riding and extreme sports for the handicapped; and international entities, like Johns Hopkins Hospital and the rehabilitation program Deptherapy.
“When passionate individuals join up, things really start snowballing,” Ernst said.