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The Road: Moving on from Aninuan

For the last 5 years Puerto Galera has been Reef-World’s home but with an ever expanding conservation team and the ability to increase conservation outputs, we were fast becoming a big fish in a rather small, but well liked, pond. So a little while ago now, on the 6th May, with heavy hearts, we loaded up a Jeepney and began the 800km (37 hour) journey across the Philippines from Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro to our new home in Dumaguete, Negros Oriental. As with living in any developing country, the ride was less than smooth. Twice the jeepney was delayed because of full ferries but at least this allowed Sam and Alan, our project coordinators, a chance to watch a beautiful moon rise and get some much needed sleep before the 1am ferry, which eventually left at 330am. At 7am the jeepney and load was greeted on Panay by blazing sunshine and preparations were made for a day of travelling. Making good progress, the jeepney arrived at Dumangas Port, Iloilo in time for yet another full ferry to depart without us. Despite this, driver and crew always remained in good spirits and demonstrated unrivalled driving skills; pushing on constantly except for dinner and ferries. Even the caretakers of our new houses greeted us with smiles despite us arriving in Dumaguete at 3am, 36 hours after starting out. At 4am, unloading our new office and house had finished and much sleep was had, though not before a quick ‘we made it’ photo opportunity. Unrelenting, the jeepney crew were awake 3 hours later and preparing to leave for the return journey!

For Reef-world, Dumaguete boasts many logistical bonus’ that residing in Puerto Galera just wasn’t providing. Better internet speeds to make those conservation emails deliver that little bit faster, closer to international airports (in both travel time and distance), and the chance to have closer networking relationships with a wider range of stakeholders have all been factors in our relocation to this place we now call home. And while we will miss little Aninuan and Puerto Galera we are consoled by the fact we will be back there soon to coordinate the yearly Green Fins assessments.

Marine Conservation on Malapascua Island, Philippines

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.

Positive Steps For Trash Free Seas

It is rare to visit a beach and not see several items of trash lying in the sand. I don’t think I have ever had the pleasure of visiting a beach without encountering discarded plastic wrappers, plastic bottles, cigarette butts and fishing line. Having studied Marine Biology I truly ‘see’ the trash lying on beaches and I start to think of the consequences such a small item can do to such a large ocean. However I feel most people just filter out the sight of trash – out of sight, out of mind.

If there were items of trash lying in your garden you would pick them up and put them in the bin, so why when we visit beaches do we not do this? Are we too lazy? Are we too posh? Or do we simply just not understand?

I have always known trash on the beaches and in the oceans is bad, my friends and family have always known it is bad, but do they really know why?  I could provide you with a list of the negative impacts of trash on beaches in the oceans but there is so much information out there about it just a quick search on Google and you will have all you need to know.

Instead I am going to focus on a more positive note – how are some people combatting the ocean trash problem. 80% of trash in the oceans comes from land, so what better place to start helping the oceans than removing trash from land. There are many initiatives out there to combat this but I would like to tell you about the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Clean-Up Day which is held worldwide on the 3rd Saturday of every September.

Anybody from any country can participate in International Coastal Clean-Up Day, you can check on line where large events are taking place and join one, or sign up online and create your own event for an area you want to protect. In 2013, 648,015 volunteers picked up 12.3 million pounds of trash from the world’s coastlines. The 2014 International Coastal Clean-Up Day was held on the 20th September 2014 and The Reef-World Foundation joined forces with the Stairway Foundation Inc to celebrate. However due to an incoming typhoon our event was rearranged to 5th October 2014.

The belated event was held at Minolo Bay, Oriental Mindoro, Philippines and started with two presentations being given to local children and adults who had volunteered to help with the clean-up. They were provided with information about coastal ecosystems including coral reefs, seagrasses and mangroves as well as information about the impact of trash on these environments. They then broke off into groups to discuss how they could reduce the impact of trash on the marine environment and each group made a pledge to the environment. Grace Pelino, the Fisheries Officer then gave an informative presentation on the legislation in place to protect the marine environment. This educational outreach section highlighted the biggest lesson I have learned whilst working as an intern for The Reef-World Foundation; ‘you can’t stop a person doing something without educating them about its impacts and providing an alternative’.

Following on from the presentation, all the volunteers moved to a beach and mangrove area which was covered in trash. We spent just over 30 minutes at the location before running out of bags for the trash – however we did remove a whopping 450kgs in that short time. This really highlights the impact a small group of people can have in a small time. Although we didn’t ‘save the world’s oceans’ with our one clean-up event, we provided an education to local people about how they can help protect their surroundings and we made positive steps in combatting the ocean trash problem.

I would really like to encourage people to participate in events such as these; it was hard work but really good fun and rewarding. I appreciate one day of cleaning each year won’t solve the ocean trash problem but it will help. However you can help to protect the oceans every day of the year by collecting just a few items of trash from a beach or from the streets which will prevent them being blown into the sea.

Interestingly……did you know if each person on the planet could clean 0.05km2 of the ocean, it could be completely trash free!

How it all began!

Hello and howdy from the Philippines! This is day 4 of 60 (non-travelling) days. Today in the big-Zoox house we are doing some classroom learning about different areas of marine conservation. This is really useful so we can know what is going on out there in the big blue world. Some areas really made my ears perk up, while some made me think ‘eek – glad I don’t work in that sector’!

But I’m skipping ahead. Things I have learnt about the Philippines in my meagre 4 days (it really feels like longer, so I will pretend to be an authority on the subject). I think I will start a bit of a list as I read one before I came out which was surprising useful (especially that they honk their horns to let each other know that they are there and not because they are angry). So…

1. The people here like karaoke – who knew, right?! The 24 hour hiring of a karaoke machine is not only done on purpose, but constitutes a cause for celebration. I have heard more English music here than at home in the UK. 2. They like to get up early to get a start on the day before it gets too hot. This possibly explains the stages of my morning wake-up that goes through the following sequence from 6 am: cockerel, dog barking, building of next door property with hammer and nails, English music featuring artist of choice for the day e.g. Shania Twain or Ronan Keating. If I reach the latter and I am still in bed I am in trouble! 3. Storms with mega lightning are a daily occurrence, not a novelty like at home. I like to stay up and watch lightning storms at home but if I did that here – no sleep for Weenie! 4. The main mode of transport is a glorified motorbike and sidecar which is the best thing ever. I have started a game to try and find one with the most number of people on and I think the winner had 11, but the panel is debating whether a child counts as one point or half a point. 5. List to be continued.

So far, outside of the classroom we have done seagrass and reef monitoring and completed a mission (!) to go into town and find places and people by asking around. My inner-introvert was appalled at the prospect but not only did Brian (my fellow volunteer) and I succeed, but we found out just how friendly the local people are. Not only do they help when they can but they will also introduce themselves and walk you to your destination to make sure you get to where you want to go. (They also speak very good English and I think Brian finds it easier to understand them than my ‘more-tea-vicar’ English accent.) So go team Br-eenie or W-ian – the jury is still out, both sounds freaky. Let’s celebrate with a banana shake.

Let the learning begin

Upon graduating from Bangor University, I made what some of my friends classed as a ‘crazy move’. Rather than participating in a graduate scheme or looking for a job like everyone else, I told them I had applied for an internship with the Reef-World Foundation instead. I have always been fascinated by the marine environment, which was highlighted in my school year book as ‘most likely to be watching National Geographic’. But being around the oceans and learning about the species that live them is what makes me happy so when I was accepted on the internship I was delighted! Not only would I be leaving the dreary UK for the beautiful, tropical Philippines, but I was also going to be learning about grass-roots conservation and the processes involved. I couldn't think of a more perfect next-step after completing university and I would hopefully be able to put what I had learned from all those textbooks into action in order to benefit both local people and the marine environment. After a few flight delays, a rather scary night in Manila, a 2 hour bus journey and a 1 hour boat journey, I finally made it to Puerto Galera where I and my 2 backpacks and one wheelie case were greeted by Sam and Rebecca. It was so nice to see not one, but two smiling faces and I knew almost instantly I was going to have a great 6 months. I had a free weekend before I started work to adapt and learn about my surroundings including; how much to pay for a trike, how to kill a cockroach, lizards are your friends, ants are very partial to cereal and variable pressure in the shower – its better just to wash your hair in a bucket. I also learned that just a 5 minute walk from the apartment is Aninuan beach which is simply stunning and just a short swim out from the shore is a beautiful coral reef. I couldn't think of a more perfect place and I have visited the beach almost every day.

My first day at work was great, I was given the week to settle in, learn about the work carried out by Green Fins, read books and go out snorkelling. But by Wednesday I was given two tasks – fundraising and arranging a Beach Clean for International Coastal Clean-up day on the 20th September. I am now coming to the end of my second weeks work and already I have learned so much, ranging from shark conservation to stakeholder involvement and local outreach projects. I am really enjoying waking up each morning and going to ‘work’ and I feel I have learned more about real conservation in the past weeks than I ever did in two years at University. I can’t wait to see what else there is for me to learn over the next six months.

I would really enjoy your company on my internship journey over the next few months and hopefully I will be able to give you an insight into the world of real marine conservation and the new concepts I have learned. Life is the bubbles!

Marine memoirs - "The adventure of life is to learn..."

It’s been a while since I last wrote and so much has happened over the last few months.  The Green Fins annual assessment process in Puerto Galera has largely come to an end and I have just returned from Cebu where I had the amazing opportunity to represent The Reef-World Foundation and present the Green Fins approach to over 100 practitioners and decision makers from 17 countries at the Regional Forum on Solutions for Oceans, Coasts and Human Well-Being In Asia and the Pacific.

A couple of day’s fun diving with the beautiful Thresher sharks in Malapascua following the forum gave me chance to reflect on my time so far as an intern for Reef-World and what an amazing five months its been!  The light bulbs have been going off regularly since I arrived in the Philippines in January and puzzle pieces are fitting together in a more concrete manner everyday.   Its incredibly rewarding and encouraging when policies, conventions, targets etc. you have read about, been taught in lectures or spoken about with other conservationists all make sense in a real way.  By that I mean you understood them before but now you REALLY get them in the practical sense as well as the theoretical sense when you can see them at play in front of your very eyes.  It’s even more amazing when you can recognise that you and your fellow colleagues/volunteers are directly assisting numerous countries in reaching important conservation targets and implementing national strategic plans as part of international conventions.

Attending a meeting with the Department of Marine Parks Malaysia and Reef Check Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur a few months ago on the implementation, expansion and management of Green Fins in Malaysia allowed me to witness and discuss this first hand.  As a country that has signed the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD); Malaysia has agreed to develop and implement their national biodiversity strategy and action plan in accordance with the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets that fall under the CBD.  Green Fins, as a conservation initiative that focuses on protecting and conserving coral reefs by implementing environmentally friendly guidelines for the diving and snorkelling industry, fits nicely into Malaysia’s (and other CBD members) national biodiversity strategy and action plan.  It fulfils many of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets for example Target 10 under Strategic Goal B:

Strategic Goal B: Reduce the direct pressures on biodiversity and promote sustainable use”

Target 10 By 2015, the multiple anthropogenic pressures on coral reefs, and other vulnerable ecosystems impacted by climate change or ocean acidification are minimized, so as to maintain their integrity and functioning.

Green Fins promotes sustainable use of the coral reefs and the diving/snorkelling industry by reducing the anthropogenic threats caused by this industry such as anchor damage, improper waste discharge, bad diver damage etc. in order to increase the resilience of coral reefs to widespread threats such as climate change.  I have been fortunate enough to have been allowed an insight into Green Fins at the grass roots level but also on a national and international level which has been eye opening.  At the meeting it was great to see the way in which national budget is assigned to help reach these targets and funding is being distributed to allow initiatives like Green Fins to be implemented and sustained in order to fulfil Strategic Plans for Biodiversity.

Green Fins is quite a specialised conservation approach but there are many different projects, initiatives and approaches in Asia and the Pacific (and the rest of the world!) that help each country to reach their targets for the CBD.  The forum in Cebu was a brilliant opportunity to learn about different ‘blue solutions’ that have been implemented to help countries in the region reach these targets. Other solutions included establishing MPA learning sites, integrated mangrove fishery farming systems, strategies on coastal erosion and restoration to preserve ecosystem biodiversity to name but a few.  Experiences were shared, successes were celebrated, challenges were discussed and lessons were learned.  A successful forum in my opinion!  During the forum the Green Fins initiative was invited to new locations and countries so hopefully we can assist more countries in their goal to safeguard marine biodiversity.  As the puzzle pieces fit together in my mind...the puzzle continues to expand, but that’s marine conservation for you…and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Fight or flight?

When I am working in the Philippines office, whenever I get the chance to go for a snorkel on the nearby beach, I jump at the chance. Nowadays I am mostly behind the laptop so these chances are getting fewer and far between, but I still try and make the effort to go for an evening swim after work to blow off the office cobwebs. #Yesterday, following the same route that I always swim running parallel to the shore for a mile I came across a familiar sight, a cuttlefish staying very still as I mash away overhead in my usual ungainly way. Where we are based, we are very blessed to have all sorts out there including Hairy and Painted Frogfish, Flamboyant Cuttlefish, Ornate Ghost Pipefish, Cockatoo Waspfish, Mimic Octopus and many other species that I don’t recognise including numerous Nudibrach species.  I stopped to have a closer look at this large common cuttlefish and ducked down to check it out. I was barely a metre down, about 3 meters from it, when it did something I have never witnessed. It zipped away like the UFO’s they are often referred to and vanished into the distance more than 30 odd metres away out of sight. That’s a long way to go and a lot of energy to spend, and something that doesn’t add up to the threat in my opinion. They normally allow you to come within a good metre of it and calmly stare back at you equally as intrigued. I laughed and swam on but it did made me think. Why……why run away?

As I came closer to my usual turnaround point to head back, I thought about it more and more and related to it in that, in life it is much easier to run away. When something doesn’t appeal or go the way you want it to, or at times if you get scared the easy thing to do is…run away. I work with people, from all countries, religious beliefs and backgrounds who are all involved in the environmental sector be it an NGO, a national government department or simply a local stakeholder and they all share the ability to demonstrate similar responses, as mankind usually does. For too many years, people have been running, running away from the obvious truth that we as a species are harming the environment we so critically depend on. Off the back of the latest IPCC report, I believe that something has change, in my lifetime.

There are always choices in life, and you can see this throughout the animal kingdom in the well document fight or flight response. A classic example of flight is if you sneak up on a cat and make a loud noise it is likely you won’t see if for the rest of the day. Similarly if the same cat is confronted by a dog, it is likely to arch its back and make itself big and scary and stand it’s ground – fight. I believe that to take flight is easier than to stand and fight. For too long politicians, the general public and many others in a position to act have been zipping away from the problem just like the mad cuttlefish I witnessed. I have been put in many positions in my life where it is easier to run but I know that this will not change anything and we NEED to start to make changes. Corals are disappearing, seas are rising in height and our weather systems are getting all out of whack. Time to arch our backs people and stand our ground. Put it like this, if we all stood our ground we probably wouldn’t be in the precarious environmental situation we are in today! I am not saying we need to all be anarchists, just that we need to talk about these issues such as fossil fuel use, the way we fish our oceans and the constant threat from pollution and litter and stop pretending they are not an issue anymore. Let’s not be scared Cuttlefish.

See you out on the reef!

JJ

Life of an intern - the journey begins...

After three years working in the corporate environment of a Pharma company based in London, I felt it was time to get back out into the wonderful wide world and once again focus on my passion – conserving our amazingly beautiful and diverse planet.  After struggling to find relevant work after completing my Masters in Biological Diversity I felt it was time to be responsible (ish).  This meant finding a job that at least had some relevance to what I studied at university during my undergrad degree (Biology) whilst continuing the hunt for work in the field I was interested in.  As enjoyable and interesting as it was working in the Pharma industry I knew it wasn’t truly for me.  Following an “its now or never!” moment I decided that I really had to go for it and put everything into chasing my dreams, it's never too late!  And so the journey begins, starting in the beautiful island of Mindoro, Philippines carrying out an internship with The Reef-World Foundation… My long-lived passion for the environment started as a young child when watching awe-inspiring documentaries.  The weird and wonderful life in our vast and largely unstudied oceans, orang-utans in Borneo, lions and cheetahs in the Serengeti, birds of paradise in New Guinea had me hooked!  I wanted to be the woman driving a Land Rover barefoot across the African bush looking and studying the multitudes of animals or spending days out at sea going on diving excursions to find a new species of fish or octopus, maybe not the part in front of the camera but definitely assisting with research/running of operations.  I was fascinated by the differences in ecosystems and life found within them and dreamt of a job travelling the world and protecting these amazing habitats that can be found both above and below the sea.

As a child most holidays were spent playing and exploring in some form of water mass.  Whether it was doing handstands with my sister in the sea or pool and seeing who could hold it the longest to taking every opportunity to go exploring and snorkelling in the ocean, making a mental note that the reef seemed to be far more beautiful last time we were in a regular holiday spot.  So it seemed natural that although I was interested in both terrestrial and marine conservation, I focused my MSc dissertation on the marine side of things.  In 2009 I spent a couple of months carrying out research on marine protected areas in Southern Leyte, Philippines for my final project.

To say I was excited to come back to the Philippines and carry out this internship would be an understatement.  I have thought about this country a lot over the last few years and dreamt about submerging myself in the beautiful water’s surrounding it.  To be back here working for such a brilliant organisation and with such passionate and determined people feels truly wonderful.

Five weeks in and I have already learnt a lot; I have been fortunate enough to attend a meeting with the Provincial Governmental in Batangas regarding further Green Fins activities in the local area; met inspiring people from various organisations and had my eyes opened to different ways of thinking by those around me.  I have always been very environmentally minded and was always keen to do ‘my bit’ no matter how small the outcome or impact and have encouraged others to do the same.  However my dedication and passion to educate others to play their part in protecting their environment, what ever scale this may be on; be it as a diver carrying out good ‘Green Fins’ diving practices, saying no to plastic bags, disposing of rubbish in the correct manner or choosing responsibly sourced fish has already increased massively.   I feel I am already walking around with a new set of eyes and picking up on things that I may not have done previously and looking at things in a more detailed way again.

I’d love for you to join me on this exciting journey over the next few months and hopefully I’ll be able to provide you with further insight into this field, some interesting snippets of information and a few laughs along the way.