It was a dive in waters near Discovery Bay — something Michael Clarke had done a thousand times before. But little did he know that this particular plunge was one he'd never forget.
As he explored those endless blue waters, a large shadow appeared in the sea, shifting his gaze to what he then discovered to be the gentle majesty of a whale shark — the largest of any fish alive today. It's moments like those that continue to remind him of his passion for the water.
Even as a toddler, Clarke immersed himself in the sea - or any body of water actually - something he only enjoyed as a pastime. Today, however, this veteran has emerged as the highest certified Watersports Specialist in the Caribbean, and the man charged with spearheading the entire water sporting operations for Sandals and Beaches resorts across the region.
Clarke, Sandals’ Corporate Director, Watersports, is now an authority on aquatic sports – including pools and the intricacies of building and maintaining them – and holds the distinction of being the only person in the region certified to educate PADI dive instructors.
Raised on the northern coastal area of Jamaica, Clarke, like the tourists who visit regularly, was drawn to the island’s inviting waters — a grip from which he could hardly be pulled away. No one knows this truth better than Clarke's own mother who quickly learned of her son's aquaphilia.
"My mother would eventually have to find someone to leave me with for the rest of the day each time we visited a body of water because it was always a fight when it was time to leave," Clarke recalls of his childhood.
His early training in watersports was nurtured by his brother Clifton Miller, who exposed Clarke to skiing, operating boats, snorkeling, among other things. The young aquaphile attended college while working part-time until he completed his studies and started his first job in watersports where he was introduced to diving and the opportunity to earn his first certification.
Before long, Clarke started his own business which he operated for many years; and overtime, he took his skills and his personal love for the water and wove them into a story of resiliency, hard work, inspiration and opportunity. Perhaps, though, it was in 2002 when he joined Beaches Ocho Rios (formerly Beaches Boscobel) under the Sandals Resorts International banner that he was presented with his greatest opportunity yet.
It widened his appetite for personal development. But more importantly than that, Clarke joining the Sandals family was the alchemy needed for further development of dive instruction training programmes in the Caribbean and its islands that richly depend on the blue economy.
As Clarke would tell it, back then, instructors would have to come from other parts of the world just to administer training and exams to those interested in becoming certified dive instructors. He recalls one occasion when he had to travel to the Cayman Islands to complete his dive instructor certification course because there were not enough persons to sit the exam in Jamaica; especially since the instructor had to travel from the United States to oversee it. Getting to that point wasn’t at all easy, as Clarke had to train and complete various levels of rigorous certification processes to become a dive instructor. He first had to get certified in Open-Water Diving – beginner and advanced – and master the tools needed to get certified as a Rescue Diver as well as a PADI Divemaster.
Long before sitting his exam, Clarke began making waves at Sandals, and those splashes made their way to the company's late Chairman, Gordon 'Butch' Stewart who then deployed Clarke to Beaches Turks & Caicos Resort to implement changes in the watersports division there.
"Turks was my first overseas assignment and such a great opportunity to broaden my horizons. Back then, the resort team and I had six dive boats and were training and facilitating dive sessions with up to 150 guests per day. We worked to empower the team members and in turn, it made for the best experiences for the guests,” said Clarke who spent seven years there.
He undertook additional assignments at resorts across the region to further enhance and promote their respective watersports divisions. He said, “Travelling to the various resorts opened my eyes to the possibilities of synchronizing the division as one regional operation in an effort to make watersports one of the main reasons our guests come to visit Sandals each year... With the support of the Sandals leadership team, I was determined to do all I could to promote watersports and make people fall in love with it, especially diving.”
He returned to Jamaica in 2014 where he was appointed the Director of Watersports for the entire Sandals chain of resorts; a position he has used to foster the existing partnership between Sandals and the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI).
But that was not to be the last directorship Clarke earned in his professional pursuits. He aspired to achieve what could be described as the ultimate accreditation in his profession — becoming a PADI Course Director as this post would provide easier access to certifications in the Caribbean without trainees having to rely on the availability of instructors travelling from abroad to facilitate the exams.
“The [PADI Director] exam period lasted for approximately two weeks and was absolutely nerve-racking,” Clarke mused. “I, along with 29 other persons, some from as far away as Egypt, Thailand and Japan; along with their translators, all gathered in the Dominican Republic to sit the exams in 2017. I’m glad I was brave enough to pursue it to that level, with the full backing of Adam Stewart, now Executive Chairman of SRI. I have been all the better for it and I am now certified to ensure other persons within the Caribbean, who aspire to sit the dive instructor exam, have easier access and no longer have to face the challenges I did.”
As Sandals facilitated his development, Clarke is focused on multiplying those efforts and get more team members and fellow Caribbean nationals trained and certified as dive instructors.
“The Sandals brand offers so many possibilities from a watersports perspective and diving is just one of them. Sandals has over 25 of the best, state-of-the-art dive boats in operation across the region … and they are customized specifically for diving and making the entire process of moving equipment and accessibility easy for our guests. We also have 157 highly experienced diving instructors and, overall, almost 700 staff in watersports. Our guests keep coming back because of the service delivery backed by highly-trained staff, a high safety record, and top-tier equipment that we service. We are amassing over 89,000 dives yearly with over 27,000 persons and it shows that people really enjoy this. It speaks to the fact that we’re doing many things right,” Clarke said proudly.
“I’ve been fortunate and blessed to have so many opportunities presented to me over the years and I never take it for granted,” Clarke added. “I am grateful that I am a part of an organisation that has strong partnerships and that the world-class team members in my division have full access to these certifications. We make sure that our team is able to be trained and re-trained on a consistent basis to provide the most amazing experiences for our visitors while also achieving their own personal goals.”