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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!

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.