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Conservation

Breaking Barriers with Green Fins

Breaking Barriers with Green Fins

Working on the Green Fins initiative means working closely with the diving and snorkelling community. Over the last two years, I have been privileged enough to meet some of the industry's strongest forces for coral reef protection. Whether it's the Green Fins Ambassadors - local dive guides going the extra mile to promote sustainable diving practices - or dive shop managers working alongside government to achieve their mutual conservation goals.

 Green Fins Ambassadors of Panglao, Philippines

Green Fins Ambassadors of Panglao, Philippines

These individuals come from all walks of life: mothers and fathers, twenty-somethings and fifty-somethings, Filipino and Chinese, experienced divers and even newly qualified divers. But they all have one thing in common. They love the ocean. They'll do everything they can to fight for the survival of coral reefs.

One way in which Reef-World are working to help these inspirational people is by breaking barriers throughout the industry. Recently, so many instructors and dive guides have expressed their concerns about the growing number of new divers visiting them from China. I have heard story after story about divers that don't know how to control their buoyancy, divers that have been certified without even entering the ocean, and divers that just want to touch e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g.

Chinese divers are becoming burdened with the stigma of being terrible divers before they've even set foot in a dive shop. It's a sheer numbers game. In 2017, visitors from North East Asia accounted for 65% of all people travelling to the Asia pacific! That's a huge majority but such growth only really began in the last 4 or 5 years. That volume of people learning a completely new sport - diving - in a completely new environment - underwater - that quickly is bound to lead to problems.

 Asia Pacific Visitor Forecast 2017-2021, Source: PATA

Asia Pacific Visitor Forecast 2017-2021, Source: PATA

Again and again the industry has identified language barriers as the biggest hurdle to helping these new divers learn about sustainable diving and coral reef protection. That's why we at Reef-World have really pushed to translate all of the Green Fins materials into Simplified and Traditional Chinese (as well as Japanese and Korean!). By using these materials, dive guides and instructors can break the language barrier between themselves and their divers. They are able to show them exactly how all divers should behave underwater to ensure the future survival of the animals they love.

There's still a lot more work ahead for the entire diving and snorkelling community but this is definitely a fin forwards in the right direction! Check out all of the newly translated Green Fins materials promoting environmentally friendly diving and snorkelling here: http://greenfins.net/en/Posters

 Some of the Green Fins Materials

Some of the Green Fins Materials

The beast that has been, 2016

The beast that has been, 2016

I think it's safe to say that 2016 has been an ... interesting year. The internet is flooded with 'worst year ever' sentiments and memes, and there has been no escape from the media frenzy on the ups and (mostly) downs of global politics. Several people I know have had challenging years personally, and we have lost some of the great voices in our global culture (R.I.P. Snape, Willy Wonka, Major Tom etc). 

Unsurprisingly, it's also been the hottest year on record. Again. (See some brilliant climate graphics here). I learnt the terrifying fact that "if you are 30 years old or younger, there has not been a single month in your entire life that was colder than average." This year also saw the bulk of the 3rd, and longest running, global coral bleaching event, with some countries seeing up to 74% of it's reefs bleached. The predictions for reef health over the next 30-50 year are, honestly, bad enough to entertain the "why bother" thoughts. 

All the global temperature observations for 1850-2016 mapped in a single figure. Can you see a trend? By Ed Hawkins

This feeling of hopelessness, whilst more acute this year than ever, is not new. Not to me, nor to the vast majority of people working in conservation. I remember sitting in my Marine Pollution module during my Masters thinking....we really can't do anything that doesn't have a negative impact on the environment. We are too many, too greedy, too short-sighted. But here I am, still working in conservation 10 years (has it really been that long!) later. And so I'm sure we'll get through this year and whatever 2017 has to throw at us. 

Working in conservation requires this delicate balance of naiveté (things will get better, won't they?) and thick skin (to stave off all the hopelessness). It requires you to absorb the lows and use them to propel you and your cause upwards, and forwards. You have got to celebrate the successes. You have got to stop and appreciate the progress, even if it is only a tiny step for mankind.  Even if it's not enough yet. Because the crime, the real savagery, is to accept the status quo. To not act. And none of us are in this to 'lie back and think of England'. 

In that vein, let us consider my top three: 

  • We made it to the Paris Agreement. Ok, so it was made in 2015, but this year it 'entered into force', at literally record speed. You will have read how it's not enough, it's too vague, it took too long, countries still have to follow through - all valid points - but on this hottest year ever, the global community has listened to science and taken a stand. We didn't, and won't, give up. That is no small thing. 
  • More than 5% of the ocean is now protected. For the first time ever. Considering that countries started promising measures of protection in 1992, and in 2012 when I joined Reef-World the figure stood at 1%, this is pretty incredible. Plus there's all the super cool technology they are using that is speeding things up even more. 
  • #CITES4SharksAfter being under-represented for decades, we saw, for the second COP running, a majority consensus to protect highly vulnerable sharks and rays despite heavy lobbying from “the other side”. Three thresher shark species, nine mobula ray species and the silky shark (and the Nautilus - not a shark, but as cool) were voted in a nail-biting vote that doubled the percentage of sharks threatened by the fin trade whose trade is now regulated internationally. 

[Read more happy ocean news]

 New kids on the block

New kids on the block

Closer to home, we at Reef-World had an exhilarating, exhausting, exciting, remarkable year. Welcoming Charlie and Jula as full time staff, plus Lui for his 6-month internship, our growing family sprinted through 2016. The highs and lows, joy and tears, sweat and sea water all culminated in amazing conservation outcomes. 

  • Green Fins Assessor training -  17 government and NGO staff to be Green Fins assessors from three different countries have undergone our 6-day training programme to work as Green Fins to champion sustainable tourism in partnership with the diving industry.
  •  Green Fins Toolbox - A huge amount of this year was dedicated to launching the Green Fins Toolbox, a cumulation of 10 years of lessons on sustainable marine tourism for dive centres, divers, governments and NGOs. Check it out here
  • Updating the Green Fins Toolbox - Not ones to rest, we then trekked the beach fronts of many a diving location to consult with the industry and tourists and off the back of this, we are in the process of designing new materials and translations to meet the challenges of various growing tourism markets. Watch this space! 
  • Green Fins How-to-Videos - To complement some of the ... tools in the Toolbox... we are filming a whole set of environmental best practice how-to-videos for the diving and snorkeling industry. Another watch this space! 
  • The Green Fins website got a makeover, mostly the boring fiddly stuff behind the scenes in the database used to monitor the improvement we've seen this year in Green Fins members environmental practices around the world. 
  • Green Fins implementation - This year we worked directly in 8 different sites across the active Green Fins countries, conducted 250 assessments, trained over 900 dive and snorkel staff, released over 100 media releases/ articles, ran booths at three dive expos, presented at three international conferences, and wrote one bajillion emails and reports. Try saying that in just one breath. 
  • I just want to take a minute to mention how much more has been done by the Green Fins teams across the 6 countries - thank you to everyone for your tireless work. 
 Green Fins assessors in the same place for the first time! Warm and fuzzies all around. 

Green Fins assessors in the same place for the first time! Warm and fuzzies all around. 

A major personal highlight for me was doing the Kinship Conservation Fellowship making 17 new life-long friends and talented conservation practitioners. Not only did this experience teach me a whole suite of new conservation tools and attitudes, but reminded me that there are so many passionate, dedicated individuals out there all working towards the same goal. 

So I step into 2017 refreshed and raring to go, determined to stay positive in the face of political upheaval and terrifying changes in climate. The world ebbs and flows to a dance that goes on for far longer than our lifespans, and if we want to drive a more sustainable world, we only have one choice. 

Just keep swimming. 

Many more colours than 'just green'

Many more colours than 'just green'

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As time passes by Green Fins keep unveiling its many colours to me; just like a prism, refracting light to those who want to receive it. I can go back in time and remember the way Chloë explained her life adventure with Green Fins, I could see in her eyes the passion behind it and how it easily got in her heart. That was not the only time I perceived this, as I immersed myself within the network and more people came in my way, I could identify that same shimmer in their eyes. It became a constant.

I can proudly say that I am now part of the network of conservationists empowered by the strength and diversity of the initiative. With every experience, a new colour is displayed. Initially working with the ‘sea guardians’, all those people within the diving community who live their lives in direct contact with the sea, the ones that most evidently need healthy oceans. This group of people empowered me and showed me how important is to clearly listen and understand their troubles/ needs in order to make our daily job more valuable.

This year, a new colour emerged. We had the chance to participate in ICRI’s International Tropical Marine Ecosystem Management Symposium, ITMEMS 5. We were there, maybe the youngest group amongst the crowd, ready to impart one of the sessions. It was a big personal challenge, we had a crowd of professionals in marine conservation from all over the world ready to listen what we had to say.

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Fortunately, everything was a success and again it was evident how in just one day the Green Fins philosophy went directly into their hearts. Many of the participants left ready to implement the materials on their locations, talk to national authorities, do whatever needed to get Green Fins to their countries and start working towards a change.

This experience goes beyond the concepts of ‘Bottom-up | Top-down’, it entails human relations, and most importantly human relations with the marine environment. As you dive into the Green Fins initiative, you notice that it is not only ‘greener’ on the other side.

Designing marine conservation

Designing marine conservation

  During my Master’s program I was the subject of constant questioning on how my previous professional development, in design and communications, and my current chosen program, of Sustainable Natural Resource Management, could interact with each other. During the ‘weak’ days it really made me question if I was making the right decision, but certainly, for the majority of times, it just reinforced the reason why I was there.

What took me into this new endeavour was the urge to make a difference. I wanted to develop a career that provided a meaning and an impact. This was just a platform that could help me combine my aptitudes and interests; it didn’t matter if people understood how. Every time they questioned me it just made it clearer for me. I knew that design, communications and creative thinking have a big reach, whether it made “sense” or not.

Determined to transform my work into something that means more, I made the decision. And so, I eventually stumbled upon a Charity that needed me as much as I needed them. That was of course Reef-World, offering me the job that perfectly embodied everything I tried to explain back in UPEACE.

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Life brought me to this fabulous group of professionals that challenge me every single day to become better. And is now my quest, as an official staff member of the team, to create that demand for creative thinking in the niche of conservation whilst bringing that extra asset to the team.

About a year ago, doing research, I stumbled upon a very interesting and assertive article under the title “Five Skills Designers Have That Global Development Needs”. I immediately felt identified, and now I can see the opportunities Reef-World is giving me to further develop my skills. Reef-World works with an amazing platform for empowerment, the Green Fins initiative. It benefits all of those involved, from operations, implementation and the actual network.

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From my perspective I can see how it gives me the opportunity to get close to the people who make it real, understanding them and their needs. The more I immerse myself into the Green Fins initiative, the more I look towards what can be done and improved.

“The key to better policy, better products, and better public services is rooted in understanding of the key players and what motivates them.”

At the same time, by understanding the people, I get the opportunity to create capacity, empowering these people to make a difference and by giving access to tools that will improve their lives. It is very comforting to realize that by enhancing my own skills, I am at the same time improving someone else’s life and while at the same time having a positive impact on the environment.

This experience just re assures that thinking outside the box, being frowned upon, is actually positive when you know you are following your true instincts and beliefs. I now have a big challenge in front of me, looking forward to see how it changes me and those around me.

Malapascua, then and now

Malapascua, then and now

In 2014, I experienced the magic of Malapascua for the first time. I embarked on the 20-hour journey from Southern Leyte with my new life-long friend in hand and a sense of freedom blowing through my hair.

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A bus, an overnight ferry and another bus later, however, I arrived in Maya feeling rather more exhausted and a lot less poetic! By that point, haggling a supposedly “fixed price” ferry to our final destination felt as if Dory was holding me out of the water, bloated belly first, for a flock of seagulls to attack! But once we negotiated our way through the "seagulls" and onto the ferry for an…almost reasonable price, the view upon approach to Malapascua Island made it all worthwhile. After a good night’s rest I was in full dive tourist mode; squeezing in as many dives as possible, overflowing my hard drive with photo after photo of captivating cuttlefish and new nudibranch species. My friends and I wanted to see it all: the giant frogfish, the mating mandarin fish and, of course, the infamous thresher sharks. We were not disappointed! We were lucky enough to dive with a huge number of species that we had never seen before. Species that we had spent months teaching about in Southern Leyte but had never actually seen! It was a wonderful experience and we left the island feeling extremely fortunate.

 Thresher shark

Thresher shark

Almost a year later to the day, in 2015, I was given the amazing opportunity to return to Malapascua with Reef-World. It was another incredible trip but some of the changes I noticed in my year away left me feeling anxious about this charismatic island’s future. The magic was most certainly still there: the people were still smiling from ear to ear and the threshers were still as ethereal as ever. But the eyes behind those smiles looked a little strained and the glow of the threshers was being masked by more and more bubbles.

 Trash separation on Malapascua Island

Trash separation on Malapascua Island

As an increasing number of tourists visit the tiny, 1km-wide island, pressure begins to mount and the cracks begin to show. Divers descend upon reefs, kicking corals and poking shrimp, and beaches become flooded with trash. Local stakeholders are doing whatever they can to hold back the tide but they are struggling with a load too heavy to bear alone. They need your help.

It is your responsibility to be an environmentally friendly tourist and to choose sustainable tourism options.

Choose the dive centre that doesn’t throw its anchor on coral. Choose the hotel that doesn’t provide you with single-use plastic bottles. Ask your guides and fellow tourists not to touch or harass marine life. And dispose of your waste properly.

Create the demand for sustainable tourism and its prevalence in the industry will grow. Not only will you protect the beautiful environments you have travelled across oceans to see, but you will also give the people you meet there a more secure future.

 Sunset on Malapascua Island

Sunset on Malapascua Island

So...what do you do again?

So...what do you do again?

More often than not, returning home to the UK means telling friends and family what I've actually been doing for the last however many months. And when I tell them I've been working in marine conservation in the Philippines I usually get a soft “tut”, a roll of the eyes and a comment about how they wish they could swim with turtles for a living! Sadly that is not my job description…

 The view from Malapascua Island lighthouse

The view from Malapascua Island lighthouse

…My job is much, much better! And here's why:

  1. I work for a charity. (So instant feel good selflessness points.)

  2. I help a small team of exceptional individuals run an initiative of the United Nations Environment Programme. (So…I pretty much work for the UN!)

  3. I help the booming diving and snorkelling industry of South East Asia protect the environment rather than exploit it. (Helping save the World one tiny coral at a time)

  4. I have to travel…lots!

  5. I help bridge the communications gap between the private sector and the Government. (I help the people with problems connect with the people who can provide practical solutions.)

  6. I meet and work with passionate individuals from all over the World.

  7. I SCUBA dive!

  8. I’m constantly pushed to think and grow. (The nature of the job is almost obscenely dynamic and diverse!)

  9. And finally, I get to do all of this standing beside the 1 person in the World whom simultaneously makes me feel completely content, yet inspires me to achieve the impossible.

Don’t get me wrong. There are still difficult days. Hell, there are difficult months! There are seemingly endless hours stuck in front of a computer, questioning whether something is even possible!

But the difficulties and the frustrations never outweigh the positives. The take home feeling is always one of satisfaction...of achievement...of passion for my job - for my life!

And that is why I cannot wait for my internship with The Reef-World Foundation to end…and for my job with them to begin!

 The Reef-World Team, from left to right: Me, Chloe, JJ, Sam, Jula and Alan

The Reef-World Team, from left to right: Me, Chloe, JJ, Sam, Jula and Alan

From office to sea

From office to sea

One thing that I learnt from myself on past job experiences is that definitely I was not made to work on a fixed routine. I’ve lived it, appreciate all that I could gain from it, but also I have renounced to it! A very scary decision to make, but then the freedom of managing my own time was priceless! When I first came to the Philippines and saw myself on an office – for a second I thought, what have I done?? But certainly, as everything about this experience, it had a very special turn of events.

Being part of the RWF team has nothing monotonous about it. Just before I could freak out, I knew that I was going to be moving around a lot! Resulting into a new perception of what office work means. Suddenly the office time became so precious and effective; instead of being afraid of the routine I was actually excited to get things done, before the new journey began.

The journey led me to Malapascua Island, after leaving Dumaguete and taking a trike, a four hour ferry, taxi, sleep, taxi, eight hour bus, small boat, ferry and finally our legs in a very very very hot midday sun; I am here with the team. This small island has a very special vibe to it; definitely there is a before and after the Yolanda event, and you can feel it in the people. Something positive that I have noticed on the after Yolanda, is that they have come to the realization of how connected they are to nature, they saw how nature can destroy; but also realized how nature can nurture and help them thrive. I am looking forward to spend more time to immerse myself on their culture and their perceptions, using the Green Fins initiative as the way to do it.

It is these kind of life experiences what I was looking for before setting on to my new Filipino adventure. I wanted something that took me out of my comfort zone and transformed the perceptions and concepts of everything that I thought I already knew. From the basic concept of work, to the better understanding of human interaction with the nature; of humans and the ocean.

My journey towards a #LifeBeyondPlastic

My journey towards a #LifeBeyondPlastic

“Remember your intent.”

My journey towards a #LifeBeyondPlastic, or at least a life beyond single use plastic, started as a simple desire to inspire people to take part in the International Coastal Clean-up (ICC) event in September. With the driving force of a dynamic and zealous team this idea quickly became something much more. It evolved into an ideal strategy for the goals Jula and I needed to achieve. And before we knew it, we even had a mission statement:

"To use the ICC to raise public awareness of the impacts of plastic marine debris, and to encourage people to reduce their plastic waste by providing them with alternatives and up-cycling/recycling solutions."

We wanted to explore the topic of marine debris further, absorbing as much information as possible. And we found that for such an enormous and relevant global issue, public awareness is still staggeringly low.

“80% of marine debris is land based.”

“60-80% of marine debris is plastic.”

“Remote Operated Vehicles found a Coca-Cola can in the deepest part of the ocean, nearly 7miles deep, where no human has ever been!”

“The Great Pacific Garbage patch is larger than Texas.”

“There is six times more plastic than zooplankton within ocean gyres.”

Fish are dying.

Seabirds are dying.

People will die.

Whether it’s the result of direct ingestion or depleted fish stocks…

…People. Will. Die.

And still, as a majority, the public aren’t talking about it. We aren’t worrying about it. We aren’t trying to combat it! The UK introduced a 5p plastic bag tax, years behind the majority of Europe, and newspapers responded with headlines like “Chaos Looms!” How is that right?

“Remember your intent.”

You can see how a person (me) could begin to spiral into a deep, dark pit of despair when facing such a seemingly enormous and infinite problem…but that wouldn’t really help anyone would it? Fortunately my good friend Jula is always nearby to remind me to “Remember my intent.”

Yes, this problem is man-made. Yes, we created this problem. But doesn’t that make it our responsibility to fix it? We need to change. Fast! And that was the point of our campaign. Raise public awareness and inspire change. The world needs change on a global scale. But even one inspired person is a victory. Because that one person can inspire others. We can do this. We can set off a chain reaction to inspire the world!

So help the world. Help yourself! Take the steps to reduce the plastic in your life, and up-cycle that which you can’t. Inspire others to follow your life-saving example and live a #LifeBeyondPlastic.

My journey to a #LifeBeyondPlastic

My journey to a #LifeBeyondPlastic

For me this journey began a LONG time ago! It all started with a bucket of paint, paintbrushes and very consistent visits to the ocean. I’ve always found art as a very efficient way of communication: it has no language barriers, no boundaries on how to express your thoughts and feelings, it involves the use of all your senses, and even though the artist can guide the public, it can be interpreted in many different ways.

Being drawn to the sea on a very early age I found a need to express it and I found art as a way of letting it out to the world. That feeling just kept growing and growing and drawing me closer to where I am now. My art grew with the interest and scaled from the mere representation of my feelings to the reality that I was observing. I started realizing how unattached humans were to the oceans. Not realizing how our current lifestyles have a direct impact in the marine environment.

Reason why I decided to use my art to communicate the human impact on the oceans, focused on marine debris. On beach or dive trips I gathered what people thought of as rubbish and used it as part of my paintings.

Having as a result SEA|SEE, an environmentally aware art exhibition, aiming to represent how a small change in our consciousness can transform the world that we live in.

From that point on I knew that what I really wanted was to direct my professional career towards the protection of the marine ecosystems, combine my passions: design, art, and creativity with marine conservation. Which is where I am now, enjoying the company of the Reef-World team.

This amazing team gave me the opportunity of materializing that ideal combination. During this past month, with the launch of the #LifeBeyondPlastic campaign, Charlie and I had the chance to encourage change in people, educate them and educate us at the same time. Having a bigger reach and amazingly positive feedback.

Those positive responses and realizing that there is an increase in awareness, that people are willing to make a change; gives you strength to keep on doing what you love. I just hope that this experience is the first of many more to come! #fortheoceans

‘Balot Dagat’

‘Balot Dagat’

A wavy ocean, that is how the last week of placement felt inside me. Movements of waves rising from excitement and a feeling of fulfillment, and lowering when it came to the realization that another chapter have finished and we had to move on. When you leave a place and you feel that something tickles inside you, it reflects from where you lived the experience and how. I definitely poured my heart and soul during these weeks of placement, juggling between the role of a Green Fins assessor and a Reef-World intern. Both responsibilities that challenged me every single day, forcing to bring the best out of me.

I was warned of the amount of work we would face, but it was not until I was actually living the experience that I could clearly understand the dimensions of it. Fortunately I wasn’t doing this on my own, I had the chance to share all of these moments with a group of magical human beings. Sharing even viruses that sent us all, but two team members, into bed with fever and “dodgy” stomachs, as they would say. Our bodies pleading for a pause, a forced pause, to recover and come back up again. Not by chance I received an email with the phrase: ‘Be thankful when you’re tired and weary, because it means you’ve made a difference’.

Even though we were tired, at the end it was clear for all of us that we had made a difference. Those big waves of excitement came from the reactions and humble gratefulness from the people that were involved. Expressed in powerful handshakes and sincere smiles, making us realize the big impact that lies behind the Green Fins initiative. Parallel to the thrill and excitement came the goodbyes, testing the bonds created along the seven weeks of teamwork. I will be forever grateful with all of those who played part in this special chapter of my story.

Now back home in Dumaguete the waters are much calmer, waiting for the next tide to come in!

A Beautiful Dream

A Beautiful Dream

We can all relate to the sudden realization of those hidden messages life covers up, waiting there in silence until we wake up. Waking up capable to grasp the essence of the here and now, able to construct the thin, but strong lines that connect us all. What might have been just a phrase written on a shirt, suddenly gave sense to the experience this wonderful country has given to me in the past two and half months. ‘A beautiful dream’ suddenly became the theme of what this adventure has been all about.

Being now on our third week of placement, constructing new life stories, new relationships, understanding the meaning of marine conservation and making Alona Beach our new home; is what this dream is all about. When it comes to describe what I am doing here everyday, it can easily fit into the description of the “ideal” job I wanted so long ago. Cycling with my beloved ZEPs into town, enjoying the warm sun and the breeze, working alongside the sea and for the sea – it can be called a beautiful dream. With the good always come the bad, or in this case the challenging, sacrifices and hard work have become essential factors of this experience, maybe some of the most valuable ones.

I made a promise to myself of trying to promote a positive change on the people that surround me, trying to be always aware of making it happen even through the smallest of actions. But suddenly I have come to the realization that Green Fins is actually a channel through which I can fulfill that. Every time I hear myself and my teammates saying: “We are here to give you the tools, but you are the ones making the difference.” Passing on the knowledge and the passion towards marine conservation and, as mentioned before, constructing the thin lines that connect us all with the environment that surrounds us; fills my heart with happiness and gives me the strength to keep up with everything that has to be done.

I have always wanted to be part of the conservation movement because it signifies work equal to the creation of a positive change in people and so in the environment. We owe everything to our oceans. It is for this reason I can come back and say that until now I have been experiencing the most beautiful dream.

A Story of Secrets

  

After some thought I have realised that I am a middle man (or woman) in life. As a marine biologist I digest scientifically sound recommendations, and as a conservationist I feed these suggestions to the people who can really make those changes. I do this by using every means available to me, and with the technologies available today there are many different ways to do this. We have websites, social networking and texting, we print posters, banners and spread environmental messages in their electronic forms to everyone who will take them, we meet with high level politicians, authoritative bodies and globally recognised environmental groups, we work directly with the people who live, work and eat from the oceans. With all these means of communication, funding really remains as our limiting factor but hey that’s life!

However, sometimes when I’m not being a marine biologist or conservationist, when I’m just plain old Chloe, I find I can lose my voice when it comes to passing on environmental messages as if they are my little secrets.

At the point when I’m sat in a busy restaurant and the table has been beautifully laid and the water already poured, I spot an endangered species available in one of the dishes on the menu. Do I approach the restaurant manager and explain the impact this has on the environment, that I will not support these activities and so will be leaving the restaurant in an attempt to make them realise that supporting the consumption of these species is not only destroying our seas but will also destroy their business? Or do I guiltily slink out of the restaurant with an apologetic smile and a speedy walk? Yes, I’m ashamed to say that sometimes I do the latter.

How about when I’m approached by someone asking for contributions to a mission against my environmental beliefs (e.g. anti-contraception groups). Do I take time to explain why I am against their mission and explain my own beliefs instead in an attempt to let them recognise how their advocacies are systematically destroying people’s quality of life? Or do I guiltily avoid eye contact and murmur something along the lines of not having any change on me? Yes, once again I have to admit that it sometimes remains as my secret and I choose to take the latter option again.

In my work I see people holding their own secrets close to them every day. A dive guide who speaks so beautifully about their passion for the marine environment and how it cripples them to see their divers damage the coral reefs, but who delivers an unimaginative, characterless and quite frankly boring dive briefing instead of taking the opportunity to inspire their divers to behave responsibly underwater. Or a fisherman who has always practiced sustainable fishing techniques passed down to him through generations of learning, who sits back and watches neighbouring fishermen greedily using mosquito nets in order to remove every living organism leaving nothing to reproduce and keep the fishing stocks healthy for the future. Or a daughter who has been taught at school about the impacts of marine debris who silently watches her grandfather absent mindedly flick his cigarette butt into the ocean. This information will remain her secret only.

Environmental degradation often stems from lack of knowledge, but sometimes I find that the knowledge is really there, but it just isn’t being used. I was once told by one of the local community members we work with in the Philippines, that “information is useless without the tools” and that I was giving them the tools they needed. I think it’s actually more apt to say “information is useless without the voice”.

There are a million reasons why these messages remain secrets; embarrassment or respect, or perhaps concerns over social discomfort or even personal safety. After writing this, I am going to make more of an effort to use my voice, in every capacity available to me. I don’t have to preach, or shout or order. I just have to gently pass on information in a friendly and fun manner and let people see that changing behaviour is necessary to preserve our natural environment; the lifeline we all rely so heavily on. I wonder if you could also do the same, to take the next opportunity you have to pass on the information you have to someone else, to find your voice.

Let’s follow someone who inspired change in the most incredible way who said that “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”. Nelson Mandella

A story of understanding

It’s been some time since I last blogged for Reef-World, in fact an embarrassingly long time. I could update you on all the activities I have been involved in as Reef-World manager over the past year. I could tell you about the training we did for boat drivers who take tourists to snorkel the fragile coral reefs of Puerto Galera in the Philippines, to teach them how to protect their livelihoods and natural heritage. I could tell you about the workshop we ran for the national Government of the Philippines to teach them about approaches which will strengthen their Sustainable Coral Reef Ecosystem Management Program. I could tell you about the new law we helped a local government to pass in a popular diving destination to ensure all local dive guides are trained in environmental standards for scuba diving. I could tell you about the lobbying we have done within international intergovernmental organisations to put pressure on a certain national government to control tourism activities which are encouraging the feeding of whale sharks for the entertainment of tourists. I could tell you about the scientific paper we have written reporting on the data we collected from our work with Green Fins and dive centres, showing that the project is really making a difference and encouraging people to change their attitudes and way of life for a more sustainable diving industry. I could tell you about how the governance and strategic directions of Reef-World have flourished and diversified since we appointed a new board of trustees.

Instead I’m going to tell you about a little precious and enchanting corner of our world which I had the pleasure of visiting recently. El Nido, northern Palawan in the Philippines. After a 6 hour journey through the almost pristine forests of Palawan along roads so bumpy a Chelsea tractor would complain, I stumbled out of the bus bleary eyed and feeling more than a little travel sick and instantly thought I had travelled back in time. Wooden fronted buildings lope between thick greenery with a backdrop of cascading limestone cliffs falling from clouds so high they rival the likes of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers. A crisscross of roads, almost wide enough to pass as single lanes in Europe, are the thoroughfares for spluttering tricycles driving headlight to taillight with the random and more than a little frequent chirp of the horn to shimmy on the traffic, always complemented by a wave and a big bright smile from the driver. The town is bordered by a soft white sand beach draped by coconut trees reaching out to the colourful Philippine style wooden boats which line the sparkling turquoise ocean shallows. These shallows gently slope down to deeper seagrass beds, home to the magical and desperately endangered dugongs, and eventually give way to buzzing and vibrant coral reefs.

Limestone cliff backdrop to El Nido Town

I had been told that the people of Palawan possess a certain sense of understanding regarding their environment. While I truly believe that respect for the Philippine oceans is deep within the hearts of all Filipinos, the general understanding of the consequences of people’s actions is lacking. The Philippines, similarly to any other island nation of the world, is defined by the legacy remaining from many generations; that the oceans will remain an endless supply of life and wealth no matter what we throw at or deny it. As a marine biologist and environmental educator, the whispering promises that Palawan’s communities behold this understanding has always been of great curiosity to me.

Working in marine conservation carries its emotional baggage. Our oceans are in trouble and as a global nation we seem to point blank refuse to accept that change is essential. This is woven into each day of my work, each decision I make, each hurdle I jump. It can become quite disheartening. This is why I have learned to grasp each positive encounter I have with both hands, bundle it up and store it for less happy times. During the two weeks I spent in El Nido I’m thrilled to say that such moments worth savouring happened on a damn near daily basis. Seriously, that’s no exaggeration.

Me drifting over the coral reefs of El Nido (yes, being upside down is essential)

During the process of introducing a marine conservation project in any location (which is what I was doing for two weeks, you didn’t think we’ve just been on a jolly did you?!) one inevitably encounters some resistance, some scepticism and sometimes a little hostility. All of which is quite warranted given the somewhat questionable intentions of some conservation programmes of the past and, unfortunately, also the present. I’m not saying that we didn’t meet any of this in El Nido, but once our intentions and action plan were clearly defined through an open process involving all the people who will have a stake in the project, this quickly melted away. After which our challenge was not to build momentum for the project, but to dilute the momentum for a more realistic strategy, something which was really quite unfamiliar to the Reef-World team.

While the attitude of the people we encountered certainly matched the promises I had heard regarding the environmental appreciation of the people of Palawan, there seems to be some small cracks appearing. These cracks spread from the reverberations of modern day’s society; a shrinking and more accessible planet and misguided regulations. As ever, these cracks are appearing in the form of blemishes on the ecosystems of El Nido. Anchor damage and careless snorkelling practices have left large sections of shallow reef completely destroyed, nutrient loading is acting as fertiliser for algae which now suffocates great swathes of coral colonies, and reef fish communities are completely devoid of critical species such as large groupers and sharks because of fishing pressures.

Lack of mooring buoys, or education programmes to encourage people to use them, results in much anchor damage

The foundations of regulations for controlling those activities which are threatening the natural environment are in place in El Nido and for that we commend the Local Government. Throughout the nineties and early noughties, a number of international conservation organisations and international funders ploughed great resources into developing the bones upon which to build the environmental laws and enforcement mechanisms of El Nido. However, international energy seems to have dried up and consequent environmental regulatory developments have become a little waylaid. An example of this lies within the Eco-Tourism Development Fee (ETDF), a small fee paid by tourists to raise funds to support environmental activities within the local area. This is not a new concept in environmental protection and is an excellent way to supplement otherwise struggling resources, but it is a concept which has been brutally abused across the world in the past. Unfortunately it seems that due to various internal financial system changes and other hurdles, only a small portion of this income is currently being assigned to local environmental protection projects, certainly not as it was intended when the original ordinance was passed for the ETDF in El Nido. The income from the ETDF is no small sum of money, already in 2012 $150,000 has been collected and it’s expected to reach $200,000 by the end of the year, a testament to the booming number of tourists currently visiting this paradise.

Thin and delicate foliaceous corals are highly susceptible to damage from a dropped anchor or careless fin

While signs of the environment suffering are disturbing, what is more alarming is the growing sense of resentment felt within the community who work in the tourism sector regarding this matter. Everyone we spoke to complained about the fact that ETDF funds are not being used for environmental projects. This anger is raw and fresh and completely contradicts the essence of the peaceful and sympathetic attitude people had when discussing all other environmental matters. Even the individuals within the local Government who are responsible for assigning this budget seem to have no feasible solution to the problems they are up against when trying to release funds for worthy projects.

As time went by, it dawned on me that the biggest threat to the local environment of El Nido may not be the anchors, the careless fins or the nutrient loading, but may be in a possible shift within the hearts and minds of the people of El Nido. Local authorities across the world need to lead people towards a more sustainable and prosperous future. By with-holding the funds which are collected from the pockets of the consumers who drive the tourism industry, we are removing any incentive or bargaining chips with which to empower the people of El Nido to continue to protect their environment. These people feel cheated, and I am terrified that the next cracks to appear will be within that magical sense of understanding I spoke about earlier.

Reef-World and their magnificent partners at the El Nido Foundation will work hard to encourage the Municipal Government of El Nido to pave a way to make these funds available for environmental projects which are so desperately needed right now and into the future. There are people who have the power within their grasp to turn this all around, to better the futures of all those who live in and have the pleasure of visiting El Nido. Over the coming weeks a local management team has been assigned to investigate how these funds might be best spent and make recommendations based upon this to the local government. Meanwhile, I kindly and respectfully request that the Mayor of El Nido, Hon. Edna Gacot–Lim, considers a new system to make these funds more easily accessible to the dedicated and good-hearted members of the local society who have been entrusted to local environmental protection within the Coastal Resource Management Office, the Tourism Office and the El Nido Foundation.

This story is an example of how the silent works of Reef-World sow the seeds through education, and nurtures the foundations of regulations through advocacy for a more sustainable future. This is the very essence of the flavours that tie our “Reef-World” together and will continue to create moments worth savouring for many generations to come.

Reef-World is back in the Region

After spending a good 5 months in the UK this year we were pleased to say goodbye to the Great Expensive British Pound and return to where our conservation dollars go further and get stuck back in to the grassroots work Reef-World does so well. While its great catching up with friends and family, we do begin to feel somewhat detached from what's going on back in the Region when we are only seeing it through our laptops.

After what seemed like an incredibly easy journey from Bristol we arrived into stinky Manila on Monday 3rd October. We got a great deal for only £540 return to Manila with Emirates for a 12 month ticket. It was great to catch up with our Government partners the next day, hear what they have been up to and make our next plans. It was agreed that the volunteers we have managed to recruit through the Zoox Experience Programme presented a good opportunity to introduce Green Fins to a new location, Cebu which is the biggest diving destination (in terms of tourist numbers) in the Philippines. We will continue to base ourselves in Puerto Galera where Green Fins has already been introduced and where we feel very much at home now. So we travelled down to Puerto Galera the following day and collected the many boxes (full of what?!) from our friend and moved into a small flat. We have good roots here now which was emphasised by the fact that by the following evening the bedside lamps I made by hand almost 2 years ago were in their place, our oven was linked up and our mobile office was unpacked with internet access and staplers at the ready. It was very nice to be back and see our many friends.

But we didn't rest for long and we are now in Cebu for an orientation, meeting the local government guys, NGOs and diving community, hearing the woeful tales of destructive fishing and corruption. We will spend a week here working out the best place to base ourselves and the volunteers, and identify the major environmental issues we can begin to focus on using Green Fins. The official launch will be held mid November and this time we are hoping for a lot of media attention. It's absolutely pouring and pouring with rain, which has made trawling around all the dive centres today a miserable task! We have just heard that a typhoon will be merrily making its way through the central region of the Philippines over the coming days, the centre of it predicted to pass a few hundred kilometers north of us :( While this does not present any danger for us (we will not be taking any flights or boats of course) it means we are in for more soggy and miserable weather! On the positive side, in only one day we have met some fantastic individuals, received many pledges of favours and support in various shapes and sizes and we are very enthusiastic about bringing Green Fins here.

Dried, salted fish is a staple food in the Philippines, eaten for breakfast, lunch and supper! There is of course still a lot of follow-up work to be done in Puerto Galera and Anilao, the sites where the project has already been introduced and we have not forgotten this. We have applied for financial support to help us with this. We are always looking for help so if any of you are nearby and fancy donning some Green Fins then please do contact us. Right now we are donning our soggy slippers and enjoying a nice cup of PG tips pyramids (fresh from the UK) and some lechon manok Cebuano style!

Our other office

When The Reef-World Foundation is not doing all the boring accounts and paperwork at it's HQ in Anglesey or in our temporary base in Bristol, we are of course working is SE Asia. Why are we here many ask, what about Africa or the Caribbean? This is a good question and our story of working in SE Asia has a lot to do with its history of how it evolved many tides ago from our founder Anne Miller. However there is another very important factor that has played its part in why Reef-World has deliberately not expanded to other parts of the world.

YouTube - The Coral Triangle - Protecting the Most Diverse Reefs on Earth.

SE Asia or the majority of it encompasses a critically important zone when it comes to biodiversity. The Coral Triangle. There is more life here (under the water) than anywhere else in the world. The biodiversity here is astonishing, don’t believe me then watch the video above from the Nature Conservancy explaining why they also work there. Forget rain forests, this place has more species than anywhere else on the planet and that is important for all of us globally. These vast quantities of species migrate, feed, die, breakdown and pass energy on around the globe helping to sustain life. Think of it like a fat mans larder full of lots of different types of sweets and candy, just with fish instead!

Last winter

Last winter

 

Just going through the ridiculous amount of files that I have my laptop from years of work and came across a picture that is actually quite recent sent to me from Anne Miller, the Founder of Reef-World but one that I had forgotten about. I thought you might want to see what happens in Angelsey when the snow gods decide to really dump it down over night!

This is the ol cabin that has hosted many a meeting and brainstorming session not to mention providing vitally needed accommodation from time to time. This picture is actually really hard to try and get my head around while I am sitting here in the Philippines at my desk at 15.30 on a particularity hot and sunny day in the mid 30's. We actually miss the seasons a lot here!

Anyway the real reason I wanted to post this image was to remind some of us about climate change and the fact that wherever I seem to go now in the world, the local residents are unsure of what the weather is going to bring them later that same year. In the last four years we have witnessed here, the weather in Asia has been getting more and more unpredictable. Farmers here in the Philippines used to be able say exactly to the week when they would harvest their rice or other crops. This is no longer the case. Typhoons have also been getting more and more unpredictable in time, duration and intensity (nothing new). The dual season of NE and SW (or wet and dry) no longer seems to be distinguishable from each other. This means that not only people but the forests, coral reefs, mangroves and seagrasses cannot adapt all the time to this sudden change.

Sadly this is a very common theme around the world today but there are many positive signs too of people acting to conserve their environment on a local scale and making a local difference which is what is so important in this day and age. Even during unusually high sea surface temperatures leading to coral bleaching in Thailand for example, there has been recorded evidence of many recruiting corals even after such a devastating period. This would not have been possible if there were additional threats and stresses upon them from man on a local scale. So even if it seems like there is no point when mother nature on a global scale is changing and shifting, you can still play your part locally which collectively makes all the difference.

Why bother ?

I am often asked and even questioned by my friends and family back in Bristol, UK (you know who you are…) “Why on earth are you battling this uphill struggle?” Someone has even said which was very kind, “You are an educated guy, surely you know you are not going to change the world or make any real difference?” Maybe true… but here is how I look at it …

It’s about everyone pulling their weight. Sure, some celebrity driving a Toyota Prius isn’t going to reduce carbon emissions on a dramatic scale but surely people can see that if everyone in the States for instance was driving a Hybrid car, the carbon emissions would be lower! Actually this isn’t the greatest of examples as the majority of electricity is produced using fossil fuels but I hope you see my point.

So why Marine Conservation? There are many serious issues in the world today that affect millions of people on all sorts of different levels. Hunger, disease, war, persecution, poverty and even large scale natural disasters. Regardless of the serious plight of one person against another in any part of the world, there is one thing that all of mankind can safely say they share in common, and it’s not that we all go to toilet at least once a day! Yes, we all rely on the Earth we live on for our sustained existence. It’s a bit of a bummer but if we don’t look after the place we live on then we are in for a bit a tough ride.

The point is we are all dependent on our planet which differs to the other planets out there in our solar system in one major way. We have a hell of a lot of water, about 70% to be more accurate. The very land we live on, tropical rainforests, even tundra, are all important places habitats that we terrestrial species are very familiar with and have relied on for a long time. We know a lot about it and therefore we see the importance of preserving it. However, that other 70% is kinda important too.

If we manage to trash the seas through various methods and degrees of damage we are in for a hell of a bumpy time. The marine environment (including the coastlines) is responsible for absorbing more than half of the carbon in our atmosphere. Don’t just take my word for it:

Out of all the biological carbon captured in the world, over half (55%) is captured by marine living organisms. Some marine habitats are particularly good at this job. Mangroves, seagrass and saltmarshes might only cover 0.5% of the sea bed but account for more than 50% of all carbon storage in ocean sediments. (Nellemann et al., 2009)

It is also estimated from Woodroffe C.D. (2002) that “as of 2002, over half of the world’s population was estimated to being living within 60km of the coastal shoreline.’ This means as a race we are highly dependent upon our coasts for our livelihoods.

So I figure that this resource is of critical importance to our survival, plus I think it’s pretty awesome too ... sure one person bringing their own plastic bag to the supermarket doesn’t change a lot, but if we all did it …

I’ll end this little (ahem) blog with a well known story someone who is quite close to me, who has a big day coming up, (!) told me when I was much younger than I am now. It’s about two people walking on the beach when they come across thousands of Starfish washed up on the shore due to some reason, (I predicted from a large storm surge!). One of them picks up a Starfish and throws it back into the sea. The other person says “What you doing that for. You’re not going to make a difference, there are thousands” To which the other person replies …

“It does to him!”

How it all began...

Philippines

Similarly to Chloe Hunt, the other Manager of The Reef-World Foundation, I too have been harassed for not blogging my marine conservation activities and travels over the past four years. No excuse really but lets not dwell on the past and look to the future, because that's what it's all about, the future... So why am I currently in the Philippines surrounded by SCUBA diving shops and beautiful, unique and extremely important marine life? Well I guess it started from those early surfing trips in the summer down to Cornwall, England with my family when I was a child. I spent hours in the rock pools and in the sea wondering how on earth animals could have adapted such a cold, salty environment.

I was once asked on a open day at a University in the UK by a Geordie tea lady why I  wanted to study marine biology for 3 years. I quite simply said that I wanted to learn more about the environment that seems so bloody huge, surrounding the UK, and yet we know so little about it. She smiled and said something like "I see." Turned out it wasn't a tea lady but the Head of Admissions for the University to whom I would soon be applying ... Woops, but obviously did something right as I was called on the day I received my A-Level results by the same 'tea lady' who wanted to know if I was still interested in coming to Newcastle Upon Tyne University!

Providing feedback

Anyway so after a fun and what seemed like only a basic introduction the the vast amount of sea water at Newcastle, I then saved up some cash to go abroad with Chloe Hunt to gain some of that all important experience for getting a job in my chosen degree. It involved a trip to Borneo in 2007 followed by two placements in the Philippines, before heading to Indonesia to look for some work then finally (like a true backpacker) heading to Thailand a year later for a last chance saloon look for experience /work. It paid off...

Scuba Diving

After a visit to the Phuket Marine Biological Centre (PMBC), we were introduced to Khun Niphon, a highly respected coral reef specialist who then introduced us to Green Fins.

" Ah... I see, like Green Fingers but for diving" we said. We then decided that it was such a worthwhile project that we decided to stay, and here we are 3 years later working on the project as Regional Coordinators endorsed by UNEP, who initiated the project in 2004, working alongside governmental departments in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and now the Philippines helping them to set up Green Fins in their respective countries.

It was these early days with Green Fins that we were introduced to Anne Miller, the Founder and Director of the The Reef-World Foundation, and our relationship has since grown very fast. Reef-World has been supporting the PMBC for over 10 years and Anne quickly took us under her wing. We learned a lot fast and we were thoroughly excited about what we could bring to the project with Reef-World support.

We are still with Reef-World and have finally set up this blog that has been talked about over way too many sunset chats with local beverages in various countries including Wales, where the HQ of Reef-World is based.

So I hope you now understand our (well mine a bit more at least) background a little better and this helps make more sense of where we are coming from. We will from time to time post various stories here and look forward to hearing any comments or remarks you might have.

interview

If you want to read more about The Reef-World Foundation then check out our website, follow our Tweets,  join our Facebook page... you get the picture.

See you around,

jj

Jump-starting my career in Marine Conservation

Reefs at Risk Revisited

After years of people pestering me to start documenting my work in blogs, I have finally built up the courage to sit down and begin telling my story. My first blog comes as I begin to digest the information I read today in the recently released “Reefs at Risk Revisited” report. A pretty disturbing read and something that adds to that bubble of guilt that grows inside me as I wonder if I’m just not doing enough to conserve our marine ecosystems. This is a pretty crazy notion considering I’ve dedicated the last 4 years to marine science and conservation! I have to admit that I can’t really be sure exactly what set me on a career of monitoring and promoting the protection our marine life. People who dedicate so much time to conservation usually have such magical beginnings to their journey. For me there was no life changing moment, no hugely inspirational talk by a wonderfully stimulating person or horrifying images of marine life suffering at the hands of human ignorance. It was quite simply a love of exploring the underwater world thrown in with a solid foundation of a deep respect for Science.

My introduction to the marine environment wasn’t the romantic, enlightening experience I would have liked for the sake of this blog. A 14 year old girl shoehorned into a membrane dry suit (which had certainly fitted her perfectly at the beginning of the season), trying desperately to find her sea legs on a corkscrewing boat, before making a flailing entry into the bubbling waters of the English Channel encouraged by a hearty shove from behind by her father. Surprisingly, I was hooked! Mix this with the ambitious determination of a teenager, and I progressed through the BSAC qualification ladder at lightening speed and was instructing by the age of 16.

Now for another admission, and one I dread the Dive Officer of my BSAC Club finding out, I’ve never really enjoyed diving for the sport or the adventure. It’s always presented to me an opportunity for discovery and education beginning with teaching people to dive in a Leisure Centre swimming pool in a small town in the middle of England. As much as I found instructing hugely rewarding, I knew that it wouldn’t keep me entertained forever.

The Arches at University of Newcastle Upon Tyne

So, in 2002 I began a Degree in Marine Biology at one of the best Universities for the subject in the UK; Newcastle Upon Tyne. Over the next three years a whole new world of weird and wonderful creatures, bizarre lifecycles and evolutionary tales and theories of threats with terrifyingly serious consequences opened up before me. It was a hard but extremely enjoyable slog and I achieved a first-class honours degree with an extra pat on the back when I was presented with the “Prize for the Graduate with Outstanding Performance”. I left Newcastle with an overwhelming notion that this was going to be my golden ticket to take on and explore the world.

Home in the Philippines

How the story then travels to me sitting in a little Filipino house writing this before preparing for another day of diving and training for my work with the local dive centres on the Green Fins Project, will most definitely take another blog or two to finish.

1st Reef-World blog

This is going to be a short one! This is a simple test to check that everything is in order ahead for our new blogs. Please come back in the near future to read various blogs from the Reef-World team and follow all our work on the Green Fins project as the Regional Coordinators.

This is linked to our website where we have loads more information on our previous work, how and where we operate and why we do the things we do. I have to read over them myself sometimes to remind me what an important role we play in marine conservation sometimes!

If you have any questions or would simply like to hear back from one of team then please e-mail us and we will get back to you providing there is electricity or the internet is working here in the Philippines.

See you again soon,

jj