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Green Fins

‘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!

Eat. Sleep. Conserve. Repeat!

Eat. Sleep. Conserve. Repeat!

The last month has been a whirlwind of study, travel, marine conservation and unfortunately, sickness! I’ve had 4 different ailments, seen 7 different doctors and taken around 70 tablets. Through it all “It’s more fun in the Philippines” has definitely been my favourite catchphrase but despite the set backs I’m still managing to do what I love and that feels incredible.

Alan and I braving various illnesses in Cebu

Alan and I braving various illnesses in Cebu

Before coming back out to the Philippines I was based at home for 6 months, spending some precious time with my family and desperately trying to scrape together the cash to pay off my last voluntary conservation role. I found myself working a mundane 9-6 job in a call centre and slowly losing all motivation to drag myself out of bed in the morning. I spent every day feeling unchallenged and uninterested in my own life!

Joining Reef World has felt like a renovation! I find myself challenged to improve myself every day. Whether it’s during a Global Marine Conservation module where you can’t sort your MMOs from your MNRs or a presentation where you have to explain global warming in a way that transcends language. This internship is not just strengthening my existing skills but introducing me to whole new areas of research and stakeholder interaction. Watching Sam (Project Manager) navigate meetings with Government officials or dive industry ambassadors in a way that considers the perspective of different groups whilst uniting them towards a common conservation goal is truly inspiring. I could never scribble enough notes to keep up with all this new knowledge but I’m certainly going to try!

Enjoying a sunny day outside the Moalboal Municipal Hall with the ZEP volunteers Debby, Alex and Nicola

Enjoying a sunny day outside the Moalboal Municipal Hall with the ZEP volunteers Debby, Alex and Nicola

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...

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