I’m sitting eating toast outside on the verandah after my early morning jaunt down to the beach for a snorkel and just thought I would share my thoughts on the Philippine trip so far. I joined the Zoox Experience Program in order to gain a better understanding of the different opportunities for work in the marine conservation field and the steps I need to undertake to get there. Unlike most of the volunteers, I have not always had a marine conservation background and only in the last year have I attended university in this field having undergone an undergraduate degree in a different scientific field. This has made me nervous as to my prospects after the university course and this experience and training looked like the perfect way to establish what type of work I want to pursue, to find my strengths and the skills I am lacking! Hence the title, one of my favourite quotes by Jacob Bronowski.
I am very lucky to have three very wonderful characters joining me on the program: Lizzie is a marine biology student from Plymouth Uni who has trained in commercial diving, which sounds absolutely amazing in its own right. She can weld! Not like most people, but in the silt stir up at the bottom of Plymouth dock, legend! This is her first time blue water diving and she is excited all the time, just like me, which is so great to see. I’m sure it’s a wonderful change from the dry suits she’s used to wearing! Simon, has also recently converted to the marine conservation mind set and used to be a chemistry lab geek, but has bravely swapped that for a life as a dive instructor in the Maldives and Seychelles for the last couple of years with the intention to find his niche in the conservation world. Last but not least, Sam, who has studied Marine Biology in the UK. She has worked for 4 years in Malaysia with educational field trips for students and also more recently with the Thresher Shark research and Conservation Project in the Philippines. She has the most amazing Mad as a Marine Biologist blog and is a self admitted geek when it comes to Nudibranchs.
Firstly, I just have to say that the Philippines is an extraordinary place! When I landed in Manila, amazingly just under a month ago now, I was met by that wonderful wall of tropical heat and stickiness. Before my brain had a chance to adjust to the fact it was daytime, I was quickly ushered from the airport to Batangas Pier which was about a two hour van journey away. This allowed me a little rest before jumping onto the one hour banca ferry to Sabang. These bancas with their simple design, shallowness of hull and out riggers are perfect for the crossing and the reef coastline here.
While moored at the pier, some cheeky kids clambered onto the bamboo frames and waited patiently for passengers to toss coins off the boat so they could free-dive down to collect them. What struck me most about this single journey were the smiling faces which seemed to pop out at me from everywhere, and believe me this was a little disconcerting as I’m used to the uncomfortable and unfriendly nature of commuting in London! By the end of the next day, everyone near where I stayed had introduced themselves and welcomed me warmly into their community, offering all sorts of help from grocery shopping to matchmaking! This level of friendliness and kindness has followed me all through my time spent here.
Sabang is one of the weirdest towns I have ever been to in my life. My first thought when arriving there was: I’m in the wrong part of the Philippines, there’s no way anything has survived on this reef. Why would you dive there? The water right off shore seemed pretty filthy due to the basic drainage sewer system from this quickly built up town with dive shop upon dive shop all along the coast. Amazingly though, the wildlife is just off shore: turtles, anemone fish, lionfish, scorpion fish, cuttlefish, sea snakes, pygmy seahorses, trumpet fish, batfish, moray eels, mantis shrimp, nudibranchs galore, you name it they’ve got it. I can only imagine if they didn’t have the run off of sewage and waste into that bay it would have been even more gob smacking. One of the furthest dive sites which you can get to from Sabang is Verde Island, which has been named the centre of the centre of the world’s coral reef biodiversity! The next two weeks I spent diving in the party town of Sabang before moving, by jeepny (pimped out, lengthened old American jeeps) to the quiet and beautiful banagay (village) of Aninuan to start my training.
So, all was going swimmingly until the strike of a disgusting ear infection. Unfortunately due to the nature of the drainage in Sabang, this isn’t uncommon. The most painful part of this was the fact that I have had to keep my ear dry for 2 weeks which meant no underwater exploration. But there has been plenty to do for the program while being landbased, and so I never had the opportunity to feel as though I was really missing out. Thankfully this is no longer the case, hurrah! It has also meant that I am now probably the most clued up person as to the Drs and their drug supplies in and around the Puerto Galera, Mindoro Oriental!
Back to Aninuan. The beach here is unbelievably beautiful, clean and devoid of people. Our house is in the middle of the village and we are neighbors to the Zoox Team (Chloe and JJ), the Garcia family and Ana Lyn, who is a bright, cheery Aunty figure here and seems to be the person to turn to for advice, whether it be cooking, medicine or engineering!
White beach is just a tricycle ride away. My description really won’t do it justice, but here goes. It’s a motorcycle with a covered side car where up to 3 people sit on the bike which also has a “covered” roof, two in the buggy and Simon on top of the roof usually!
They are death traps to the naked eye, but my gosh are they a fun ride, feels like you’re in a computer game the way they drive here! It’s only P20 per person (around P66 to 1GBP) to get to the beach where our local supermarket, veggie stores, restaurants and bars are located. It’s strange, although fresh fruit and vegetables are plentiful here, there’s none of them in the food you buy when eating out. The average daily wage is P280 in the Philippines and those are for the laborers, who build, drill, dig, and carry heavy things etc all done in flip flops!! The Filipinos generally pick the fattiest meat they can find, it’s hilarious, they think they are ripping you off at the meat shop when you ask for a lean cut of meat. There are also chickens everywhere you look. Luckily my bad hearing has meant that the incessant cockadoodledooing during the night has had no affect on my sleeping.
Chloe and JJ have been so wonderful in looking out for us while we are here, to make sure we know the ropes and are well prepared for when we have to fend for ourselves as GreenFins coordinators. They have created an amazing life for themselves here. Listening to what they’ve seen and achieved at their age makes me feel inadequate but also stirs up excitation to the thought that I could enter a profession and world like theirs. As to date we have undergone professional development, marine conservation and diving, reef monitoring including Reef Watch, Green Fins Project and Global Marine Conservation training with them. The training days run something like this: 9am presentations from Chloe or JJ and discussions on the section till lunch time with a tea break/Frisbee session mid way. Yummy yummy lunch from Ana Lyn , nap time and then back to the training for a couple of hours in the afternoon, with dinner and a couple of beers either at home or out.We have also attended our first Green Fins training session with a new dive shop in order to experience the presentation given by Chloe before we launch into our roles as coordinators and eventually run the training sessions ourselves. It was a great experience, with all of the staff from the shop attending, laughing at our pronunciation of the sustainable fish list in the local language, Tagalog, and joining in with the questions posed to them. A free t-shirt was also given out to the divemaster who was brave enough to run through a fake dive briefing using the new Green Fins materials. I can’t wait to run these with the other dive operators here!
On that note, time to get ready for our first Green Fins assessment shadowing!