It is hard to start this blog. My projects as a volunteer in marine conservation have finished and it is time to look back. Not an easy job. Where do I start? Six months ago, I took a sabbatical leave from my work in Brussels and left for South East Asia. After five years working in a CSR rating agency, I wanted to experience the environmental impacts at grass root level. A few months earlier, I got my scuba license in Indonesia, Komodo. I remember the heart ache when I first saw a dead coral reef, surrounded in a plastic soup and some lost fishes desperately seeking food and shelter. It was then that I decided I wanted to do more. No better said, that I needed to do more. So, I searched volunteering projects in marine conservation with each a different approach. My first project brought me to Gili Trawangan in Indonesia. Not the most obvious choice as that particular Gili is mostly known for many tourists and its early morning parties. But among the parties there is an organization called the Gili Eco Trust that works hard to alleviate the pressure tourism has brought upon the island and the coral reefs. They install artificial reefs called Biorocks to prevent further land erosion and providing food and shelter for the marine life. Unlike other man-made structures, these ones grow stronger over time thanks a s small electrical current that helps the coral grow and gain in resilience against diseases and storms. I learned to identify key indicator fish, substrate and invertebrates, and installed a biorock myself. We organized eco snorkeling tours, trips to the landfill site and to the waste bank or bank Sampah and recycling workshops. I witnessed at first hand the challenges working in a developing country with minimum capacity and funding. But the eco-warriors were unstoppable which gave me the needed courage to continue onwards to my second project.
This one took me to a small island in Cambodia called Koh Seh. I lived for six weeks with Paul and his family and a bunch of other volunteers. With limited resources, this was a complete other island life than I was used to in Gili T. We slept in bamboo huts and showered with a bucket. There was no internet connection and only power from 7 pm to 5 am. Marine Conservation Cambodia surveyed the coral reefs in the Kep archipelago, working closely with the local government to install Marine Protected Areas. While conducting reef surveys, I made an island recycling guide on building Ecobricks and beanbags with all the plastic and Styrofoam that washed upon the shores of Koh Seh on a daily basis. MCC also patrolled the seas for Illegal and Unreported Fisheries (IUU) which often led to dangerous situations. With stormy weather, the trawlers would hide in the sound of thunder, no one there to stop them. Despite being there for a short time, I felt and shared the frustration and sadness of the people that protected the MPA every day, while the trawlers destroyed the sea beds at night, and no government that had the capacity or willingness to help them. No, working in marine conservation is certainly not a walk through the park. But they kept going, and so had I.
My third and last project led me to the Philippines where I joined the Zoox Experience Program. Their approach was geared towards training and skills development, while working as a Green Fins assessor promoting sustainable diving practices. I never could have imagined the impact this project would have on my life, both on a personal as professional level. I conducted assessments, provided feedback and trained dive operators on how to reduce their environmental impact. I consulted with local government on installing solid waste management solutions and provided input for implementing environmental policies. But most importantly, I have spent these eight weeks with the most beautiful, funny and inspiring people I have ever met. Thanks Sam and Alan for being our mentors, teachers and friends at the same time. Thanks for your pep talks, memorable hugs, for being good and bad cop and for making us believe in ourselves. And a special thanks to Aine, Alyssa and Dan, the absolute dream team. Whether it was doing assessments, training, personal projects, you guys were there and had my back. No brownout could stop us. We laughed, danced, snoozed and cuddled and I wished I could do it all over again. OH – we had a cracking time. Miss you guys already!