Katie Storr was introduced to the undersea world at a young age and fell in love with scuba diving the first time she took a breath below the surface. With a camera in her hand, she enjoys capturing underwater memories and sharing them with others, especially in relation to her devotion to ocean education.
As a PADI Reef Rescue Diver Instructor, Katie helps to maintain coral nurseries built around 11 islands in The Bahamas, and teaches students about why ocean ecosystems such as coral reefs are so important, including their role as barriers against wave impact, strong winds, and hurricanes. Katie is also a shark advocate and shark awareness instructor, with an ambassadorship to the Shark4Kids Education and Outreach Program.
As part of efforts to safeguard The Bahamas’ ocean ecosystem for the future, Katie has teamed up with other Bahamian activists and Only One to speak out against the exploratory oil drilling taking place in The Bahamas.
During our interview, which has been edited and condensed, Katie speaks about her passion for thriving coral ecosystems, the relationship between Bahamians and sharks, and some of the challenges and opportunities that The Bahamas faces as an ocean nation.
Kara Jamie Norton (KJN): What sparked your passion for ocean conservation?
Katie Storr (KS): I started off working in the ocean when I was a kid. My dad was a yacht captain and divemaster, so he instilled this love of the ocean in me and taught me how to dive. San Salvador Island in The Bahamas is where my family is from. I went to school in Florida and then came back home to San Salvador, where I started working in IT. I hated it. I left that job to be a dive instructor. I wanted to do what I was passionate about, and that was being in the ocean.
When I became a coral restoration instructor, I was able to spot subtle changes and point out healthy or unhealthy corals, such as a coral having a particular mortality rate or being an endangered species. Looking at the ocean became different for me at that point. It was no longer just about taking photos of pretty corals or leading dives. My focus changed to: “How can I protect endangered species?”, or, “How can I save sharks?” I wanted to find out how I could save the ocean.
KJN: What role does the ocean play in the lives of Bahamians?
KS: The ocean plays a huge part in our lives—not only for pleasure, but for businesses, fisheries, tourism.
On the Outer Islands, a lot of families are supported by the ocean for food. When I go to San Salvador Island, my family goes fishing all the time. They stand on the rocks with just a line and they throw it out, and that’s their meal for the day or the following day. The mail boats come maybe once a week with produce and they have to stop at other islands too, so by the time they get to these islands, either a lot of the produce has gone bad or there is less of it than people ordered. For community members to sustain their livelihoods, they have to find meals in the ocean.
Wellness and healing is another aspect. I remember my grandmother saying: “If you’re not feeling well, go down to the ocean and take a salt bath,” or, “If you’re feeling down, go sit in the ocean and take a deep breath.”
KJN: I know you are a devoted shark advocate and are working with Sharks4Kids. The relationship between Bahamians and sharks is quite complex. Can you elaborate on this dynamic?
KS: Any time I talk about this, I get goosebumps. My mother does not know how to swim. A lot of my other family members don’t know how to swim either. They are afraid to get into the ocean because of what has been instilled in them: a fear that if you go out into the water and swim, you might get bitten by a shark.
Often when I scuba dive and see sharks around me, I just want to kneel on the side and watch because they are so graceful. This animal can be aggressive, but it can also be so peaceful and graceful that it’s mesmerizing.
It’s harder for me to educate an adult about sharks, because after so many years of hearing and watching programs about shark attacks, they believe sharks will bite them. However, kids are eager to learn and don’t already have their minds made up. I was recently at a friend’s house and was telling her niece, who is four years old, about how she shouldn’t be afraid of sharks. When my friend then took the kids to the beach, she called me and said: “A lemon shark came in, and we were trying to grab the kids out of the water because they were afraid.” But her niece just asked, “Why do we have to leave the shark, Auntie? The shark isn’t bad. Can we stay?” Kids are like little sponges, and they then explain what they’ve learned to their family members and educate them in a loving way.
KJN: What served as a catalyst for you to become a climate justice advocate?
KS: There is a shallow dive site called Nari Nari, with a large underwater sculpture called Ocean Atlas, that was pristine when I first started working at the dive shop. The corals were beautiful. I saw mantas there. There were so many fish the little sergeant majors would bump right into you. Now it’s just substrate with algae all over it, so it’s dead in a lot of areas. It’s in a place where there’s industrial runoff, which has had a huge impact. A lot of tourists frequent the area, snorkeling and scuba diving. I started seeing the impacts of climate change about four years ago when the water was 88 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest I had ever seen it.
Another motivator is that based on our geographical location in The Bahamas, we suffer from terrible hurricanes. There was one hurricane where we lost the entire roof of our house and had to repair it. I remember Matthew, and the last one we had, Dorian, was really bad. Lives were lost, people’s homes. People’s family members died. What was taken from people, you cannot get that back.
It’s stories like this. It’s climate change.
KJN: Why do you choose to stand against oil exploration coming to the Bahamas?
KS: It makes me very angry. I’ve been trying to express myself, but even when talking to my friend Nikita [Shiel-Rolle] about it, it gets me so mad. Why would The Bahamas sign up to something like this? We’re at the forefront of so many things environmentally, and everybody sees us as this ocean paradise. Having oil drilling here is detrimental to the Bahamian people, to our environment, to our ecosystem. It’s horrible.
I once had to save a bird from oil at work. It was so hard. We spent about two hours trying to wash the oil off that little bird. It makes me think that if there is a major spill, so many marine animals are going to die. The chemicals that would be released into the ocean and how that would affect us is crazy. I read recently that the company didn’t find a substantial enough amount of oil to make it commercially viable—but they’re still here. It raises a concern, because if you haven’t found any oil that you can sell, why are you still here?
KJN: What is your call to action to fellow Bahamians?
KS: A lot of Bahamians don’t talk about or know about climate change. They don’t understand the impact that it will have on their lives firsthand. So if you are living in The Bahamas, get to know what’s going on around you. Read articles, listen to the news, reach out to environmentalists, and follow people on social media who are sharing different statements and scientific articles. I would also encourage Bahamians to sign the petition to stop oil drilling because that will affect all of us.
Additionally, let’s say you’re coming to The Bahamas to get certified as a Reef Rescue Network Diver, or you just want more information on where our coral nurseries are located. With the Reef Rescue Network e-learning program, you can learn about our coral ecosystems from your home using an interactive map. You can then travel throughout The Bahamas and get certified, and also go to those nurseries and make a donation.