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Scuba Diving

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: http://greenfins.net/en/Posters

Some of the Green Fins Materials

Some of the Green Fins Materials

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

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!