On the 14th October 2014, myself, Sam (Green Fins Philippines Coordinator), Alan (Green Fins Project Coordinator), Weenie (Green Fins Volunteer) and Brian (Green Fins Volunteer) left the small barangay of Aninuan for a marine conservation adventure. We arrived on the beautiful Island of Malapascua over a month and a half ago and it has definitely been one of those ‘time flies when you are having fun’ trips. I don’t want you all to start thinking we have been lazing around on the beach with cocktails and doing the occasional dive every now and again, we have worked really hard, but had they best time in the process.
When we first arrived on the island it was very clear that one year on, the island and its people are still recovering from Typhoon Yolanda which caused widespread devastation on the 8th November 2013. Many people were left without homes, schools were destroyed, and aid was at times slow to reach the remote communities. Listening to the stories of local people, dive centre managers and local dive guides, it was amazing to hear how they worked together to rebuild their communities. Dive centres received lots of donations from guests which had visited the island and they used this money to rebuild the homes of their employees and also the local school. However there was a lot of worry that tourists would now stop coming to the dive centres on the island.
Malapascua has become somewhat of a diving hotspot in the Philippines and the world as it is located only a short boat ride away from Monad Shoal, a submerged island covered in coral, which is the only place in the world where divers are guaranteed to see thresher sharks. The sharks come up from depth early in the morning to visit ‘cleaning stations’ on the coral reef where small cleaner wrasse remove the parasites and bacteria from their skin to prevent infection. The typhoon caused widespread devastation both above and below the water and many of the coral reefs were highly damaged or destroyed by the strong waves and currents. These damaged reefs could potentially mean the sharks would no longer visit Monad Shoal and therefore tourists would not come to Malapascua and local people would no longer be able to seek employment within the tourism and diving sector. Speaking to one of the local guides who visited Monad Shoal shortly after the typhoon, he said he could not describe the overwhelming sense of relief and joy he felt when he descended down to the cleaning station and witnessed two sharks. He said he knew from that point that he would still have a job as a dive guide and would be able to feed his family.
One year on, there are 18 active dive centres operating on the island, all of which were visited during our first few days. Our trip objectives were to implement the UNEP initiative Green Fins within the dive centres and to collect data on coral reef health and scuba diver interactions with the reefs for analysis by Bangor University. Weenie and Brian also had a project each, Weenie to develop a dive guide ambassador programme on the island and Brian to create an information and education campaign for local fishermen.
Week one and two involved a crash course in walking down Bounty Beach in Filipino style – this requires walking slow enough to prevent sweat soaking through your luminous green Green Fins t-shirt and not flicking sand up with your flip flops which of course sticks to the sweat, a challenging task I have to say.
Week three and four involved mosquitoes and too many doctors trips to count. Firstly Alan was struck down with Dengue Fever and after two trips to the tiny island clinic it was decided he was to make the 5 hour trip to the hospital in Cebu with nurse Hannah in tow. After returning from Cebu, what we though was a mildly infected mosquito (could also have been a tropical spider bite) on my leg went green and started leaking, it was time to go to the clinic myself. I had my lower leg numbed and a big hole dug in it by a doctor who was amazed I had over 20 mosquito bites despite wearing repellent. She proceeded to ban me from getting my leg wet which meant no diving and learning to shower with one leg in the air.
I left island life behind in week five and headed for the bright lights and big city of Cebu to assist JJ with the Region 7 Green Fins Capacity Development Workshop on Mactan Island, Cebu. (see earlier blog).
Week six and seven were all about the data. Due to having two team members on land rest during weeks three and four, we had not collected as much coral health data as we had hoped. This resulted in some of the best and most intense days yet. I dived every day for 7 days collecting quadrats with my newly named ’nerd square’ and observing divers at a variety of dive sites around Malapascua including; several dives at Gato Island, a 5am dive at Monad Shoal and a day trip to Chocolate Island (sadly not made of chocolate) where one of the divers I was observing got naked mid dive to celebrate their 100th dive! During these two weeks, I learned that Green Fins results in you asking the most random questions to Dive Operators including ‘can I please take a picture of your compost heap?’ and ‘what do you do with the used oil from the boat engines?’
Seven weeks’ worth of sweaty beach trudges later we have completed our work on Malapascua, the conservation impact we have had on the island in such a small period of time has been amazing, Green Fins has been a catalyst in bringing dive operators together to lobby for change, Weenie and Brian launched two self-sustaining projects and we have collected an almost complete data set of reef health for the dive sites. I would also like to highlight the amazing behind the scenes work done by Sam during the trip, conservation isn't always glamorous diving in crystal clear water on coral reefs, it is writing reports, planning ahead, attending meetings and answering emails.
I have had the most amazing time in Malapascua and my experiences here have provided an insight into conservation in the field including; meeting with stakeholders, collecting data and on the spot problem solving/decision making. So this is not a goodbye to Malapascua, but rather a see you soon as I will definitely be back in the future.