Welcome to Odiongan, Romblon!

The first site of our future home! With other volunteers Kendra (education), ME (Coastal Resource Management), Loren (education), Ata (CRM), Drew (CRM), and Kalen (education)
The first site of our future home! With other volunteers Kendra (education), ME (Coastal Resource Management), Loren (education), Ata (CRM), Drew (CRM), and Kalen (education)
Biggest boat I've ever ridden on for the ~6hr journey to Romblon. There were beds to sleep, a restaurant, and of course videoke aka karaoke.
Biggest boat I’ve ever ridden on for the ~6hr journey to Romblon. There were beds to sleep, a restaurant, and of course videoke aka karaoke.
My office and the huge welcome banner they had waiting for me, complete with my photo.
My office and the huge welcome banner they had waiting for me, complete with my photo.

It has been a busy first week here in Odiongan, Romblon. I think that the entire community already knows who I am because they see me running every morning. Since arriving I have assisted in the care of an injured green sea turtle, visited local fish ponds, helped collect and transfer tilapia at a fish hatchery, met with the governor, the mayor, and various school officials, and even done zumba with the Odiongan police force. I have the fortune of 5 other Peace Corps volunteers from Batch 273 also placed on my island including Kendra who is a short walk away, Ata, Loren and Kalen, who are within an 1hr and 30mins run from my site (Loren’s host dad was extremely surprised when I actually did run this distance my second day at site and stopped by for a glass of water and a picture to prove I made it), and Drew, who is a few hours drive to the north. Because I work for the provincial government, I will be traveling extensively throughout the 17 municipalities over the next two years. This could not be a more ideal place to spend the next two years: wonderful host family, supportive office staff, numerous potential work projects, and gorgeous mountains and ocean!

First snorkel experience with my Filipino friend Rolanie, a high school student
First snorkel experience with my Filipino friend Rolanie, a high school student
Various species of butterflyfish and surgeonfish at a local marine protected area (MPA)
Various species of butterflyfish and surgeonfish at a local marine protected area (MPA)

Swearing In

Swearing in at the US Embassy in Manila
Swearing in at the US Embassy in Manila
Celebrating on the stage with fellow volunteer Loren (an elementary school teacher also placed in Romblon) and Lauren (also a teacher and my roommate from training)
Celebrating on the stage with fellow volunteer Loren (an elementary school teacher also placed in Romblon) and Lauren (also a teacher and my roommate from training)

I am now an official Peace Corps Volunteer!!! The Peace Corps was started in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy to promote world peace and friendship. Since then over 210,000 volunteers have served in 139 different countries, however the Philippines is the second country volunteers were ever sent to. I have now joined this force and am one of the 273rd batch of volunteers trained to serve here in the Philippines.

The Peace Corps Philippines Headquarters in Manila
The Peace Corps Philippines Headquarters in Manila

Community Project

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Bottle benches
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153 plastic bottles 45,900 pieces of trash
The finished product
The finished product.

How do you reuse waste and also benefit the community? Before leaving Sabang, we helped to improve the community park including adding a tetherball, painting the swings and playground, and building two park benches. These benches contain a total of 153 plastic bottles stuffed with approximately 45,900 pieces of trash including newspaper, cardboard, plastic wrappers, magazines, shampoo wrappers, even a shoe. The bottles were collected by the community and trash was both donated from households and collected off of the beach. Local school children worked hard to stuff all of the bottles, while adult community members assisted with the building of the benches. Everyone enjoyed stamping their handprints on our finished product. Consider building a bottle bench in your own community!

Learning about reef fish on a bottle bench built by last year's batch of Peace Corps volunteers
Learning about reef fish on a bottle bench built by last year’s batch of Peace Corps volunteers

Happiness

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Research on happiness has demonstrated that when you see a baby animal neurons firing in your brain release those neurotransmitters which elevate mood. (Want to learn more?! Read The Happiness Project) Google your favorite baby animal right now and test this scientific theory! I bet a smile crept across your face. Here in the Philippines I am surrounded by baby animals…calves, goats, chicks, puppies, kittens, piglets and children. I typically encounter at least one of each listed and maybe more just during my hour long run every morning. Once I even had a piglet that ran along with me for a few paces. In comparison, finding a baby animal in the US is a rare occasion celebrated by flocks of strangers who want to pet your puppy. The exposure to baby animals here in the Philippines, undoubtedly elevates happiness levels of Filipinos.

However, mange-filled and bare-boned puppies are also frequent during my morning runs. With no routine spaying or neutering program here, feral dogs are a significant problem. They wander the streets and scrounge for scraps wherever they can find it. Many Filipino households do have dogs as pets, with care ranging from beloved household companion to life outside on a very short leash. Dogs are required to be kept on leashes, however in my experience this is not enforced and only occasionally followed. Female dogs are disliked because of the likelihood for puppies and the associated expense. In the Philippines if your dog bites someone else then you are required to pay for their rabies shots. Therefore if your female dog has puppies it suddenly becomes very difficult to care for these mouths and the chance of your dog biting a passerby increased dramatically. Rabies is one of the vaccinations I was required to receive as a Peace Corps volunteer. The task of spaying and neutering dogs is incredibly necessary, yet highly unlikely in the immediate future. And so each morning I see the mixed blessing of adorable puppies you just want to hold and others with pink-itchy skin with visible rib cages. As an American I challenge you to seek out a baby animal during your day today and recognize the extensive care we are able to provide for our animals.

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Supervisor’s Conference

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Within Romblon, I will be living on the largest island, Tablas, in the municipality of Odiongan, which serves as the island’s commercial entry port. Odiongan is a 1st class municipality and home to 43,676 people. The name “Odiongan” comes from the local term for arrow, “odiong” because legend has it that the first inhabitants found an arrow stuck in a tree here upon arrival and thus named the site, “Inodiongan” meaning “struck by an arrow,” which was later shortened to “Odiongan” as it is known today. I will be living in the town proper only a short walk from my office.

I recently met one of my supervisors Ma’am Rita, who works as an aquaculturist for the Provincial Government. Currently, we are working together for training sessions, which will set the groundwork for a successful two years. We have 17 municipalities to manage and I will likely visit each of them, including the sites of other Peace Corps volunteers, with whom I may collaborate with for projects.

Romblon is famous for its “Blue Hole” dive inside an old volcano. Divers can descend the vertical chimney into a series of caves and explore corals, other invertebrates like shrimps and lobster as well as schools of fish which live throughout the site. Sharks, manta rays, stonefish and sea snakes have also been sighted passing through.

Here is a video I found of the dive! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HqqZe4kbQ2Y

A short boat ride from my island of Tablas is Sibuyan Island, known as “The Galapagos of Asia” for its terrestrial diversity including 700 plant species and 131 species of birds. Furthermore, Mt. Guiting Guiting (2050m) and neighboring Mayo’s Peak (1530m) are already on my list of future adventures.

Tomorrow I swear in at the US Embassy as an official Peace Corps Volunteer!!! And then 4am departure for Romblon the next day!

Transportation

Check out the new video with my host family: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lehB1-9Rnc

My latest video, “Mag-Adventure Ako,” demonstrates the various modes of transportation here in the Philippines. Unique to the Philippines is the “jeepney.” After WWII, the American military left a number of jeeps here in the Philippines. Filipinos have customized these vehicles, extending and covering the bed, to create a vehicle similar to a Latin American bus with its own Filipino flair. Jeepney owners often compete for the flashiest vehicle, thus the outside of a jeepney is typically adorned with fluorescent artwork and multiple stainless steel hood ornaments. Passengers sit on long benches running the length of the vehicle and facing each other. Inside a jeepney, “there is always room for one more!” Passengers are frequently squished together and may even find a place on a small stool in the center aisle. Filipinos are always amused by the spectacle of some of our 6ft or taller volunteers who must crouch to fit inside these vehicles and often hit their heads on the ceiling bars. Nevertheless, Jeepneys are the primary mode of transportation between cities and towns. And momentarily I will be boarding a jeepney for the hour long ride back to my current host family’s house in Sabang from the huge mall in Olongapo where I am currently using Starbucks internet.

Permanent Site Assignment

 I just received my permanent site placement!!! I will be spending the next two years living in Romblon. This island province has a population of 283,930 and consists of 3 major islands. I will be living on Tablas, the largest island of the three, in the municipality of Odiongan, in close proximity to several other Peace Corps volunteers. Romblon’s islands are of volcanic origin and mountainous with lush vegetation. I have already heard word of beautiful white, sandy beaches. The economy is primarily agriculture with major copra and rice farming as well as coconut, corn, and fruit trees, along with abundant fishing. There are also numerous mineral resources, especially marble. Although there is an airport on my island, it is not currently functional. Therefore I will be taking an ~8 hour boat ride to get to my site.

My job assignment is with the Provincial Government (most other volunteers work at the municipal level). As a provincial employee, I will may have the opportunity to travel throughout the 17 municipalities and explore the other smaller islands. Romblon is known for being very pristine and I will be working to preserve this quality through the creation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Additionally, I will be involved in ecological profiling, reef assessment, research, and training for the provincial reef assessment team. My office specifically requested a volunteer who was dive certified. Additionally, my office is blessed with available funding, support and technical resources. Finally, there is much potential for marine thesis projects as I continue to earn my Master’s degree from the College of Charleston. I am so excited to be joining such an active office, where I can contribute my technical skills and easily collaborate with other Peace Corps volunteers.

More good news: Tagalog is the dominant language meaning that I can continue learning the same language I have been studying throughout training rather than transition to an alternative dialect. On September 18th I will travel to Romblon and I could not be more excited!! Still no word about the details of my host family but it is soon to come.

Fish ID

One of my goals in moving to the Philippines was to learn the names of all of the fish commonly seen at my various locations. Back in Key Largo, FL I routinely taught a Fish Identification class and could confidently state the species of most fish in the mangrove, seagrass and reef habitats. Because the Pacific is a much older ocean than the Atlantic there is a significantly greater number of fish species. The Philippines is located in a region known as the Coral Triangle, a marine biodiversity hotspot. Currently, here in Sabang I am working on a list of the common, scientific and local names of all fish found on the local reef along with an estimate of abundance, notes on their ecological role and any distinguishing features. This list will be utilized with other materials for the future establishment of an MPA along Sabang’s coast. Thus far I have identified 104 species of fish. I continue to snorkel everyday and without fail find a new fish each time. My next goal will be coral identification!

Check out my list:

Common Name Scientific Name
Vagabond Butterflyfish Chaetodon vagabundus
Threadfin Butterflyfish Chaetodon aunga
Black-Backed Butterflyfish Chaetodon melannotus
Raccoon Butterflyfish Chaetodon lunula
Blacklip Butterflyfish Chaetodon kleinii
Latticed Butterflyfish Chaetodon rafflesi
Eastern Triangular Butterflyfish Chaetodon baronessa
Speckled Butterflyfish Chaetodon citrinellus
Ornate Butterflyfish Chaetodon ornatissimus
Pennant Bannerfish Heniochus chrysostomus
Humphead Bannerfish Heniochus varius
Longnose Butterflyfish Forfipiger flavissimus
Convict Surgeonfish Acanthurus triostegus
Mimic Surgeonfish Acanthurus pyroferus
Lined Bristletooth Ctenochaetus striatus
Japanese Surgeonfish Acanthurus japonicus
Striped Surgeonfish Acanthurus lineatus
Brushtail Tang Zebrasoma scopas
Moorish Idol Zanclus cornutus
Barred Rabbitfish Siganus doliatus
Virgate Rabbitfish Siganus virgatus
Vermiculate Rabbitfish Siganus vermiculatus
Black-tail Sergeant Abudefduf lorenzi
Scissortail Sergeant Abudefduf sexafasciatus
Indo-Pacific Sergeant Abudefduf vaigiensis
Red and Black Anemonefish Amphiprion melanopus
False Clown Anemonefish Amphiprion ocellaris
Saddleback Anemonefish Amphiprion polymnus
Black Damsel Neoglyphidodon melas
Blackbar Damsel Plectroglyphidodon dickii
Jewel Damsel Plectroglyphidodon lacrymatus
Whiteband Damsel Plectroglyphidodon leucozonus
Springer’s Demoiselle Chrysiptera springeri
Onespot Demoniselle Chrysiptera unimaculata
Three-spot Dascyllus Dascyllus trimaculatus
Twospot Demoiselle Chrysiptera biocellata
Bicolor Chromis Chromis margaritifer
Humbug Dascyllus Dascyllus aruanus
Neon Damsel Pomacentrus coelestis
Threespot Damsel Pomacentrus tripunctatus
Obsure Damsel Pomacentrus adelus
Blackspot Snapper Lutjanus ehrenbergii
Blacktail Snapper Lutjanus fulvus
Checkered Snapper Lutjanus decussatus
Bridled Monocle Bream Scolopsis bilineatus
Three-lined Monocle Bream Scolopsis trilineatus
Striped Monocle Bream Scolopsis lineatus
Diamondfish Monodactylus argenteus
Blacktip Silver Biddy Gerres oyena
Silversides spp.
Peacock Grouper Cephalopholis argus
Honeycomb Grouper Epinephelus merra
Marbled Hawkfish Cirrhitus pinnulatus
Arc-Eye Hawkfish Paracirrhites arcatus
Striped Sweetlips Plectorhinchus lessonii
Dotted Sweetlips Plectorhinchus picus
Blackeye Thicklip Hemigymnus melapterus
Floral Wrasse Cheilinus chlorourus
Bird Wrasse Gomphosus varius
Cigar Wrasse Cheilio inermis
Sixbar Wrasse Thalassoma hardwicke
Argus Wrasse Halichoeres argus
Nebulous Wrasse Halichoeres nebulosus
Checkerboard Wrasse Halichoeres hortulanus
Pinstriped Wrasse Halichoeres melanurus
Dusky Wrasse Halichoeres marginatus
Seagrass Wrasse Halichoeres papilionaceus
Crescent Wrasse Thalassoma lunare
Redshoulder Wrasse Stethojulis bandanensis
Fourline Wrasse Stethojulis trilineata
Sixstripe Wrasse Pseudocheilinus hexataenia
Saddleback Hogfish Bodianus mesothorax
Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse Labroides dimidiatus
Reef-Flat Cardinalfish Apogon taeniophorus
Reef Lizardfish Synodus variegatus
Clearfin Lizardfish Synodus dermatogenys
Ornate Goby Istigobius ornatus
Filamentous Blenny Cirripectes filamentosus
Fine-Spotted Blenny Salarias guttatus
Jeweled Blenny Salarias fasciatus
Common Lionfish Pterois volitans
Zebra Lionfish Dendrochirus zebra
Raggy Scorpionfish Scorpaenopsis venosa
Longhorn Cowfish Lactoria conuta
Spotted Boxfish Ostracion meleagris
Manybar Goatfish Parupeneus multifasciatus
Dash-Dot Goatfish Parupeneus barberinus
Cornetfish Fistularia commersonii
Razorfish Aeoliscus strigatus
Striped Catfish Plotosus lineatus
Vanikoro Sweeper Pempheris oualensis
Starry Triggerfish Abalistes stellatus
Flagtail Triggerfish Sufflamen bursa
Orange-lined Triggerfish Balistapus undulatus
Blackpatch Triggerfish Rhinecanthus verrucosus
Picasso Triggerfish Phinecanthus aculeatus
Bristle-Tailed Filefish Acreichthys tomentosus
Striped Puffer Arothron manilensis
Blackspotted Puffer Arothron nigropunctatus
Papuan Toby Canthigaster papua
Black-Saddled Toby Canthigaster valentini
Messmate Pipefish Corythoichtys intestinalis
Snowflake Moray Echidna nebulosa

Youth Camp

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One of our projects as trainees was to host a Youth Camp for the advanced science students of the local high school. Thus last Saturday, we had 7 different teams of high school students, each equipped with a Peace Corps counselor and fancy marine science name tags. Our teams rotated between various stations including coral, seagrass and mangrove ecology, climate change, waste management, fish anatomy and the invertebrate taxonomy class that I co-instructed. The camp content was reminiscent of the curriculum at regularly taught at MarineLab, however species were Pacific-specific and added in several games and the ever-important meryenda (snack) to our program. For my invertebrate lab, I woke up at 5am to go snorkeling and collect urchins, sea stars, crabs, cowries, snails, sea cucumbers and sponges for students to look at. The students were already familiar with the major marine phyla and worked to sort our sample critters accordingly as they learned the common characteristics of each major phylum. 

Including…

  • Echinoderms (spiny skin and tube feet): sea stars, brittle stars, sea urchins, sea cucumbers
  • Arthropods (jointed appendages): crabs, hermit crabs, shrimp
  • Mollusks (soft squishy body, hard shell): snails, cowies, sea hares, sea slugs, nudibranches
  • Cnidaria (stinging cells): corals, anemones, jellyfish
  • Porifera (pores): sponges

 

Fun Fact: Did you know that 97% of all animals are invertebrates!?!