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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

So...what do you do again?

So...what do you do again?

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

The view from Malapascua Island lighthouse

The view from Malapascua Island lighthouse

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

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

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

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

  4. I have to travel…lots!

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

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

  7. I SCUBA dive!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘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!

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.

Last winter

Last winter


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

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

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

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

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,