Mactan Island is a small island just off the coast of Cebu, and joined by two bridges to the second largest city in Philippines, Cebu City. This was to be the target of Green Fins attention for Phil and I after completing our training and assignments in Puerto Galera. While Falk & Lucy had been concentrating on their no plastic campaign, Phil & I each had mini-projects looking at the impacts of the Puerto Galera dive tourism industry. More specifically, mine was to analyse the gathered assessment data from the member dive centres to establish a profile of the greatest current environmental threats posed by the industry in this area. This information can then be used to determine which are realistic long term and short term goals, and which might be addressed either through simple educational means within the dive centres, or through liaising with government departments to help release funds for larger-scale methods of dealing with the problems. For example, the top three currently identified threats for Puerto Galera were found to be:
- Divers touching marine life (often coral, which can lead to stress/infection/etc.)
- Lack of mooring buoy use, and associated anchor damage
- Environmentally-damaging discharge (e.g. bleach, oil, batteries, etc.)
While these can be managed to some degree by a hands-on educational campaign, and visiting the dive centres to help out, implementation of a widespread mooring buoy programme requires local governmental support, funds, and collaboration between dive centres. Similar issues surround waste disposal for old oil from boat engines and compressors, and dead deep-cycle marine batteries, and even simply the office/boat garbage. Armed with this information about the impacts of dive tourism for Puerto Galera, the aim is to do the same for Mactan, and see how the impacts may differ.
Anyhow, back to our new island home; Mactan Island is well-known in the Philippines as the location where Chieftan Lapu-Lapu resisted invasion by the Spanish back in 1521. Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan had joined forces with the Spanish, and in trying to overthrow the island was famously killed by Lapu-Lapu and his trusty warriors. Mactan is also a well-known haven for tourists flocking to experience the diving both directly off its coast and around the nearby islands, such as the well-known Olango. There is also an international airport, and as a result it plays host to an enormous volume of dive-related tourism each year, along with the associated risks to the marine environment, making it a important target for the Green Fins project. Similar to the situation in Moalboal, the initial aim is to have a launch event, for which representatives from as many local dive centres as possible are invited to hear a talk about the Green Fins project, and to be given the option to sign up as members. Once a member, a dive centre agrees to be assessed annually for environmental impacts, and to strive to gradually reduce their impact year-on-year. By hosting a launch event, the aim is to reduce the foot work required to sign up dive centres, and also to invite government representatives along to show support, let the dive centres see that the project has official backing, and generally increase community awareness of the project.
However, first things first; everyone needs a home. Chloë & JJ had previously taken steps to contact various people on the island to get a foot in the door, but unfortunately these options had fallen through by the time we arrived, so we had to do this the traditional way: armed with a rugged pair of flip-flops. Interspersed around meetings with various local government officials and dive centres representatives, we eventually found our home in a new house that was being let for the first time; we’d landed on our feet. What’s more it’s only a stone’s throw from both an air-conditioned mall/supermarket complex and probably the best lechon manok (spit-roast chicken) stall around.
Having met with the various government officials, we set off on foot with their list of accredited dive centres in hand to start collating a more comprehensive contact list for the launch event. We targeted one dive centre we knew to be a good bet for membership, and headed on down to the coast. Now many readers are probably imagining a pleasant stroll along sandy paths, under the shade of coconut palms, gentle breeze taking the edge off the tropical sunshine. Ha ha…this is Mactan…no such luck! Instead imagine a single road set back from the coast, with numerous tiny pot-holed dirt tracks heading down to the water some 600m away, muddy puddles producing streaks up the backs of your legs each time the flip-flops flip. High concrete walls covered in graffiti line the dirt tracks, reflecting the searing midday heat, blocking any sea breeze, and demarcating the territory of each property, and a clear indication that competition is king in this little world. It also quickly becomes clear that this is prime location for the aquarium trade, with properties behind large metal gates and security cameras, and the occasional sighting of men carrying large plastic bags containing live reef fish. The dive centres crowd each other right to the water’s edge, where no beach remains, and accessing other dive centres along the shore means retracing the track back to the road, only to follow another down to the water again! Queues of bankas (local wooden double-outrigger boats) line the concrete shore, vying for proximity to the pick-up/drop-off points for the frenzy of diving activity brought in by the tourism industry. In short, this is the sort of place where the project’s work really needs to be done, to mitigate the heavy impacts of such an intensely active dive industry.
Once we arrive at the dive centre, we start becoming aware of the scale of our task. Our list of accredited dive centres totals about 30. In front of us five dive centres nestle together, only one of which is on the list. Now our most pressing task is to foot-pound the seaward side of Mactan to simply find dive centres, which are often hidden behind a nondescript façade or down the long dusty tracks in the middle of nowhere, and not advertised on any conveniently collated website. To add a little adventure to our mission, many of them cater predominantly to either Korean or Japanese tourists, and English becomes challengingly restrictive at even obtaining contact details, let alone giving a presentation to all their staff on the benefits of environmental practices! So, after a week of meetings, long walks in the midday heat, and a couple of assessment dives thrown in, we finally managed to put together an incomplete list of around 60 dive centres which we hope to invite to our grand launch, which we’ve had to delay for over two weeks due to…hmm…let’s say, the idiosyncrasies of life in urban Philippines. Our living room wall has evolved rather like a police planning room in a TV crime drama, one wall covered in maps, cards, and planning sheets to help organise the unforeseen overload. Until our launch event our focus is on continuing to assess individual dive centres, which luckily for us requires jumping in the refreshing local waters teeming with life, and after finally getting a chance to do a couple of dives at Olango Island, I’m definitely realising the attraction of Mactan as a dive tourism destination.
So that’s the latest with the project work, but how about life outside the project? Well…the most striking thing about life in Philippines has to be how easy-going and full of smiles most people are. Of course we’re always the obscure, tall, white-skinned outsiders, yet everywhere we go we’re graciously accepted, and even more so when they learn we’re over here voluntarily helping the local environment. Of course there are innumerable social dilemmas here in Philippines, but many other countries would do well to take a leaf out of their book of life. As for the food, I arrived with very little expectation, having heard of the over-sweetened tomato paste, and the overwhelming addiction to sweet foods. It also takes adjustment to check every item in the store to avoid monosodium glutamate overload, but real treats are to be found if you look around, such as baboy sisig (diced pork face meat cooked with onion, garlic, vinegar, kalimansi, then topped with egg), or pusit adobo (squid braised in soy, garlic, vinegar). The mystery is why so few vegetables are normally cooked, as they’re certainly available to buy at reasonable prices in the shops. However, the biggest eating challenge by far has to be the balut that was presented to us all by Chloë & JJ while we were back in Aninuan. Balut is a fertilised duck embryo, a widespread delicacy around Asia, but definitely not the most appetising for the Western palate!