More than 20 years after marine scientist Kemit-Amon Lewis became one of Tropical Shipping’s first scholarship recipients, a shared commitment to the Caribbean brought them together again.
Kemit-Amon Lewis spent the past two decades building a storied career, predominately focused on studying marine life on the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix, where he was born and raised. A scholarship from Tropical Shipping helped set him on his path.
Lewis had applied for and received aid packages from both the University of Miami and the University of Tampa—but his heart was set on Savannah State University in Georgia.
“There was something appealing to me about leaving St. Croix to attend a Historically Black University that offered a marine science degree program. Savannah State is dedicated to developing minority students who can compete with those from all over the world—but I applied late, and there wasn’t much financial aid available. The scholarship I received from Tropical Shipping is really what made college an option for me.”
Lewis was also a Tropical intern on St. Croix during his summers back home. He crossed paths with Tropical again a few years ago through his work with the Ocean and Coastal Observing Virgin Islands (OCOVI) organization. OCOVI and Tropical have partnered to support the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) efforts to better track and predict hurricane activity in the Caribbean using specialized drifter buoys. Buoys launched from Tropical Shipping vessels in the southeast Caribbean were instrumental in collecting data last hurricane season.
“So much of our lives is connected to the ocean,” Lewis said. “And so much of my work is focused on getting people excited about marine and ocean conservation in different ways.”
‘The Adventures of Mongoose and Turtle’
As an undergraduate at Savannah State, Lewis studied leatherback sea turtles on St. Croix. His internship at Tropical during the summer of 2001 introduced him to sales and marketing. He managed to combine the two.
“Jennifer (Nugent-Hill, director, Tropical Shipping) talks about the campaign all the time—‘The Adventures of Mongoose and Turtle,’” Lewis laughed. “Both Mongoose and Turtle were preparing for hurricane season. Turtle was proactive and shipped with Tropical. Sly Mongoose didn’t. I think you can guess what happened.”
“Kemit was one of our first Tropical scholarship recipients,” said Nugent-Hill, who also hails from St. Croix and helped create the program when she was Tropical’s Island Manager there. “It was—and is—important to us to invest in our Caribbean youth, regardless of their chosen areas of studies, including offering them jobs during their summers back in the islands. We were so impressed with Kemit because he saw a way to make sales despite having no marketing background—that’s not what he was studying in school.”
In the marketing campaign, the turtle that shipped with Tropical came out unscathed. But on St. Croix, the non-native mongoose—a considerable threat to nesting sea turtles—wasn’t prepared for hurricane season. Lewis continued to study sea turtles (Greens and Hawksbills) as he began his graduate degree.
“I wanted to do an in-water project,” he said. “They provide a better assessment of local populations as male and juvenile sea turtles never come onto the beaches in the USVI. They spend their whole lives in the water. We were able to study their abundance and distribution by surveying a number of different bays in the USVI. We practiced free diving to catch the turtles—sometimes forty or fifty feet underwater. On a boat, we’d measure, weigh, assess condition and tag them, then release them back into the ocean.” Lewis said he found one turtle from his thesis project, tagged in 2005 at Brewer’s Bay while snorkeling at Buck Island, St. Thomas, in 2015.
At one point early in his career, Lewis dreamed of opening his own marine facility on St. Croix, but studying these endangered species and their threats ignited a passion that goes beyond the animals themselves. “As a child, I thought I’d go to school and study and play with dolphins,” he said, “but it turned out that, for me, my career has been focused on more than just exploring. It’s been about more than creating data sets and publishing findings. I’ve found that it’s more important to use collected data to create strategies to improve our world through conservation—in my case, sea turtles, corals, and fisheries.”
Fragments of opportunity
When Lewis left graduate school, his first job was with the University of the Virgin Islands as its Marine Advisor.
“I was charged with education and outreach,” he said. “Then, through the islands’ Coastal Zone Management (CZM) Program, I was the research ecologist for all four U.S. Virgin Islands and the Cays. Our mission was to help coastal developers create projects that wouldn’t cause harm to the environment—or at least mitigate it. We were able to do a few things during my time there, including introducing a ban on gill and trammel nets and the use of coral reef restoration to respond to vessel groundings.”
According to Lewis, any time a vessel would ground on a coral reef, causing damage to those coral resources, the CZM would require the responsible party to contract a team to restore the damaged reef.
“NOAA’s Coral Reef Restoration Program introduced me to coral restoration while I was at CZM.”
In 2009, Lewis joined The Nature Conservancy and began building coral nurseries in the Virgin Islands through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act made possible by the Obama Administration.
“We received $1.7 million to develop the USVI’s first comprehensive coral restoration program. We hired staff and bought all tools needed to develop projects on St. Croix and St. Thomas, and we began in partnership with similar organizations in Florida. One of these programs in Key Largo is managed by the Coral Restoration Foundation, credited for advancing the use of coral fragmentation to scale coral reef restoration.”
Using this method, Lewis explained, by fragmenting branching corals, you can accelerate growth, and the corals produce new branches. He created underwater nurseries where the coral “fragments of opportunity”—broken by natural processes that would die if left unattended—were further fragmented and grown.
“It is just like maintaining a land-based nursery or garden,” he explained.
The project’s success led to new funding and expansion. Lewis helped launch new projects as the Conservancy’s Caribbean Regional Lead for Coral Restoration—in Cuba and China—and otherwise provided guidance and in-the-field support in The Bahamas, British Virgin Islands, Grenada, Curacao, Haiti, Hong Kong, and Guam.
Pickleball and sea legs
Ten years later, in 2019, while in the waters around his beloved St. Croix, Lewis contracted a bacterial infection that almost killed him and would change his life forever.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but the original unknown infection developed into sepsis,” he said. “I went into the Emergency Room on St. Croix, my organs were failing, and the hospital there didn’t have a continuous dialysis machine.”
Three hospitals rejected Lewis initially, but he was eventually airlifted to Broward Health in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He spent weeks in a medically-induced coma and lost his right hand, right foot, left fingers, and left toes due to damage caused by Vassopressors—the medicine that stabilized him enough to even survive being airlifted to Florida.
“Fortunately, my mind wasn’t damaged in the process,” he said.
In addition to his career in marine science, Lewis is a prolific tennis player and dancer, and in the years since becoming an amputee, he has returned to all the above.
“I am connected with the Hanger Clinic in Florida, the prosthetic company that has built the prostheses I need to get back to all of my passions. I now have a leg—for walking, running, beating people at tennis—and now, pickleball,” he laughed. “I also have a separate leg for diving—we call it my ‘sea leg,’ and a blade that allows for pirouettes.”
In 2021, Lewis joined the Perry Institute for Marine Science—a marine research and conservation non-profit organization, which allows him to remain in the Sunshine State. “I shipped my truck up to Florida with Tropical, actually,” he laughed. “Like Turtle, not Mongoose.”
Since 2019, Lewis has learned a lot about advocacy, is a peer mentor to other amputees in South Florida, and has hosted, with Hanger Clinic, an Introduction to Pickleball lesson for people with limb differences.
He also recently joined the Wilson Sporting Goods family as a Wilson 360 Advisory Staff Member to further inspire people of all walks of life and different abilities to ‘Live Like an Athlete.’
The Global Drifter Program
In addition to Lewis’s work as Development Director at the Perry Institute, he and Nugent-Hill, director of Governmental and Community Affairs at Tropical Shipping—and Lewis’s friend and coworker from his 2001 internship at the company—also serve on the board of Ocean and Coastal Observing Virgin Islands (OCOVI). Lewis is the organization’s chair, and Nugent-Hill the vice chair.
“It’s a great organization—small, but impactful, in terms of the work we’re able to get done,” Lewis said.
Tropical Shipping’s longstanding partnership with FEMA makes the shipping company an obvious partner for NOAA’s Global Drifter Program.
The global buoy network is particularly sparse in the Caribbean region because buoys placed in the tropical Atlantic Ocean rarely just ‘drift in’ through the island passages, often running aground on the way. Tropical dropped its first buoy in 2021.
“Tropical decided to get involved because the sparse availability of data in the Caribbean is bothersome for us,” said Nugent-Hill. “We have a vested interest in being proactive when it comes to natural disasters in our own backyard.”
Lewis was just six years old in 1989 when Hurricane Hugo hit St. Croix.
“The goal of the project is to find better ways to predict, so as to prepare for, hurricanes in advance.” Lewis said, “And that’s accomplished by collecting and analyzing oceanographic data.
The buoys provide real-time data on sea surface temperature and currents, barometric pressure, and wave height, direction, and period.
“I think it’s a really cool example of the government, non-profit and for-profit sectors working together,” Lewis said. “It’s a partnership that doesn’t involve the transfer of dollars—instead, we share tools and knowledge.”
“Tropical’s desire to invest in education has never been self-serving,” she said, “yet here we are, more than 20 years after awarding (Lewis’s) scholarship, in an era when ESG is paramount, and here’s this wonderful man, this impressive Virgin Islander, who’s great ideas are going to help solve some big problems. The fact that we’re able to work together again all these years later helps underscore the importance of investing in people. It gives me a renewed sense of purpose, seeing this young man with so much ambition and skills and knowledge benefitting the world.”
Most of Lewis’s work at the Perry Institute is done in The Bahamas and Caribbean, creating strategic partnerships and building a case for support for the organization.
“We’re trying to diversify the way we do outreach,” he said. “We’re used to preaching to the choir, so to speak. Talking to people who already understand the importance of the world’s oceans to our everyday lives. But now we’re trying to reach a new generation, explain to more people how we all play a role in making good on all the bad that we, humans, have done over time. I’m still thinking heavily on how we make the message clear. Because if it takes a village to raise a child, it will take the world to save our oceans.”