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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:

Some of the Green Fins Materials

Some of the Green Fins Materials

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.


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

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.

Tropical Tioman...the Green Fins way

I write this instalment of my blog from the stunning island of Tioman.  Seven weeks into my internship I had settled well into life in the Philippines when to my surprise and delight I was asked to assist Chloe on a Green Fins Capacity Development program on Pulau Tioman; an island off the East coast of Malaysia.  A brilliant opportunity to experience and work on the Green Fins project from another angle and gain a wealth of experience and skills in a country I had never been to before.  As if carrying out this internship in the Philippines wasn’t amazing enough… how could I say no!

Travelling to Tioman was a bit of a trek involving trikes, taxis, boats, buses and a plane ride - not in that order.  The journey took two days with stop over’s in Kuala Lumpur and Mersing as there were no flights running to the island.  On the plus side the 6 hour bus ride from KL to Mersing allowed me to see more of Malaysia…with its many palm oil plantations that stretch on as far as the eye can see; but also some lush, green rainforests.  A bumpy ferry crossing from Mersing to Tioman and we were here.  We have very kindly been housed in grounds of the Department of Marine Park Malaysia (DMPM) whom we are working with on the island.   Within the first day we met some of our very interesting neighbours - some very bold long-tailed macaques that live in the rainforest behind us (they don’t get the name ‘cheeky monkey’ for no reason!), monitor lizards and LOTS of cats!  The cats seem to love people who are not so keen on them…namely Chloe and I, who seem to have unwillingly  ‘adopted’ a couple that reside around DMPM.

So far we have had the chance to have some inspiring and eye-opening conversations with some amazing guys from Reef Check Malaysia who we are collaborating with and who will be helping to continue the Green Fins work here on the island along with some great guys from DMPM.  It is brilliant to see the positive influence Green Fins has had from when it was first implemented on the island in 2009 by Chloe and JJ.  Of course there is still work to be done but the dive centres have welcomed Green Fins back with open arms and have been incredibly helpful and accommodating.  Most of those assessed in 2009 have maintained the positive changes they made as a result of their Green Fins Assessment last time around which is a true testament to the benefits and success of the project.

The reefs around Tioman that I have visited are pretty healthy and resilient but it is clear to see that these valuable ecosystems are under pressure from tourism and they need to be protected from the impact we as divers and snorkelers have on them as well as other human impacts such as pollution caused from rubbish/run off.  The number of snorkelers on the island is vast and although it is not yet high season here on Tioman there are a good number of divers around as well.   Seeing a fin kick destroy live coral that has been growing for hundreds of years is heart breaking.  Broken and dead coral is not what divers come here to see so any opportunity to create awareness about the importance of these reefs and how to mitigate the threats we bring to them as divers/snorkelers is a very good thing for all involved.  Green Fins has an important role to play here and with the help of the Department of Marine Park Malaysia and Reef Check I believe further successes will result.  DMPM have already installed and continue to maintain (with the help of the dive centres) numerous mooring buoys at the local dive sites and along the shore in the marine park so it is clear to see that those based on the island do have a sense of responsibility and appreciation of how special their marine environment is here.

I must admit that another reason I was excited to come to Malaysia was for the food.  Chloe and I have had local food wherever possible including roti canai for breakfast and dinner (not in the same day although I would have happily!) with very sweet pulled tea or very sweet coffee.  We have also had the opportunity to attend two Malay wedding celebrations with some very kind and hospitable locals.  You never know what surprises will arise when working with Green Fins!

We have been on Tioman for ten days now and sadly we are coming to the end of what has been a successful trip.  I am very thankful to have been given this opportunity to support the Green Fins project here in Malaysia.  Some of the working days have been long and tiring in the heat and humidity but the people you meet, things you learn and experience you get is incredibly rewarding and fun!  Farewell Tioman, until next time...

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!

How it all began...


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.


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,