Which way to the Fish Sanctuary?

As an American traveling in the States, the decision of whether or not to ask for directions may be a point of contention. Here in the Philippines the difficult part is not deciding whether to ask, it is following the directions once you receive them.

To ask a Filipino for directions typically yields a hand wave or even lips puckered (Filipinos tend to give directions with their lips) in a particular direction. When I needed to purchase a waterbottle, this response was particularly frustrating because I was entirely confused as to where this store could possibly be and found myself wandering seemingly aimlessly.

Now I have realized that protocol for asking and receiving directions is entirely different in this culture. Instead, it is assumed that you ask multiple people. The hand wave means walk that way and ask someone else when you get there. Almost like the childhood game of warmer versus colder when searching for an item. While this method seemed highly taxing, the alternative is not substantially easier. Clearly limited by the lack of roads and street names here is a set of directions another Peace Corps Volunteer texted me yesterday, while I was trying to find my way to a fish sanctuary:

“When you get to the mayor’s farm make a right, go past the b-ball court and past a nice road with a gate to the white house. Then go down that hill and make a left til you reach shipping containers, a cement bank, and a cow pasture. Make a left and follow that trail through the cow pasture and up the hill towards the antennae and guardhouse.”

Below are some of the sights along the way. Although I referenced the text several times on my bike ride there, we made it successfully to our snorkel site. Thanks Ata!!

The nice road, versus the rough road we were traveling on.
The nice road landmark, versus the rough road we were traveling on
The shipping containers
The shipping containers, not sure of their purpose there
Riding through the cow pasture
Riding through the cow pasture
The antennae in the distance, almost there
The antennae in the distance, almost there
The guard house marking the fish sanctuary…success!
The guard house marking the fish sanctuary…success!

When I finally arrived, our Filipino supervisor looked up to the sky and spotting the moon, still visible in the daytime, joked, “It’s easy to find, the fish sanctuary is just under the moon.”

What do you need to start a garden?

Most common answers include dirt, seeds, water and sunlight, maybe a shovel. This is correct if you are trying to grow plants in your backyard, however the garden I want to start is for animals…

From March 14-16, I attended a training workshop on coral gardening, and now I hope to grow coral, a sessile marine animal, within the province of Romblon. Necessary inputs for gardening coral include 4in steel nails, mallet, zipties, pliers, saltwater, rocky substrate, and sunlight.* Branching corals are ideal for gardening because they are fast growing and can reproduce asexually from a fragment broken off a larger colony.

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Important note: No live corals were broken for the purpose of garden building! Instead we dove around a reef in search of already broken, but still living branching coral fragments, which we aptly called, “Corals of Opportunity” or CFOs. The CFOs may have been fragmented by boat anchors or local swimmers and will die unless they find a new anchor along the ocean floor.

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Before receiving my certification as an expert coral gardener, I participated in a land-based practicum.

Land-based training to secure corals before doing so underwater
Land-based training to secure corals before doing so underwater
The coral nursery unit. The corals shown are dead samples for our land training. For the real nursery live corals were used and the unit was prepared underwater.
The coral nursery unit. The corals shown are dead samples for our land training. For the real nursery live corals were used and the unit was prepared underwater.

While underwater, the nails are hammered into rock until secure. Then, a coral fragment is tightly fastened to the nail with a ziptie. Don’t forget to cut off any additional plastic from the ziptie, otherwise algae may begin to grow and invade your coral.

For smaller coral fragments, a Coral Nursery Unit may be built in shallower waters. The nursery is useful to give the fragments a head start in growing before transfer to the reef. It is also useful to ensure you have a consistent supply of coral fragments for long-term gardening.

Preparing the nursery unit in the shallows before we carried it deeper.
Preparing the nursery unit in the shallows before we carried it deeper.

As gorgeous and as tempting as it was to explore the depths of the gorgeous coral wall close to our site, instead the tasks of searching, hammering, fastening and cutting to create a new coral garden in the reef shallows was a much better use of the 3000psi of air in each of my 4 SCUBA tanks. By the conclusion of our 3-day workshop, 25 Peace Corps volunteers and 25 Filipino counterparts built 3 coral nursery units and attached over 100 coral fragments to a shallow, rocky reef in front of JPark Hotel on Mactan Island in Cebu. Go CRM!!!**

*Alternative methods include securing a large rope net to the ocean bottom and tying coral fragments so the entire net will grow into a continuous reef at the conclusion of the project.

**CRM or Coastal Resource Management is the title of the Peace Corps sector that I am a part of. Other possible sectors include Education or Children, Youth & Family (CYF).

Shark Diving off Malapascua Island

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April and May mean summer vacation here in the Philippines therefore adventures are abounding, families are traveling, and I am no exception…

This past weekend I visited Malapascua Island, a 2.5 square km island just north of Cebu known throughout the world for its regular thresher shark sightings. Thresher sharks (Alopias vulpinus) are nocturnal and generally live at depths of 200-300m. They are roughly 4-5m in size and are easily identified by their very long tail and large eye. At sunrise each morning these sharks come up from the depths to meet cleaning wrasse, small fish, which remove parasites from the shark’s body. Therefore, at 5am our dive boat set out for Monad Shoal dive site, the cleaning station of choice for local thresher sharks.

Sunrise SCUBA diving
Sunrise SCUBA diving
The thresher sharks and cleaning wrasse meet at a depth of about 80ft where a large rock ledge forms a table for cleaning, before the threshers descend back to the depths to avoid the intensity of daylight sun. Kneeling on the rubble ground, as thresher sharks swam by was incredible!

Myself and John, hanging out at 80ft
Myself and John, hanging out at 80ft
“People come to Malapascua to see thresher sharks, but what they remember is Gato Island.” So we were told upon arrival by our divemaster. After visiting Gato Island myself, I completely agree!!! This site current ranks as the best dive of my life, thanks to Wilbert our expert divemaster. Here is a quick list of some of the most exciting discoveries on this dive. (I suggest you google any animal you haven’t heard of before because some are so unusual you’ll be wondering how they ever came to be in the first place)

• Cuttlefish – related to an octopus and can change color instantly
• Nudibranches – sea slugs that breath through hair-like gills streaming from their backs
• Whitetip reef sharks – we saw one swimming towards us as we came out the other side of an underwater tunnel
• Pygmy seahorses – the size of your fingernail when full grown
• Ornate ghost pipefish – related to the seahorse but extremely fragile
• Skeleton shrimp – transparent tiny shrimp
• Frogfish – camouflage so well that even though our guide pointed right at it, it a game of underwater charades for me to understand what I was looking at
• Spiny devilfish – I almost placed my hand right on top of this guy because of his incredible camouflage, luckily I didn’t because he has venom in his dorsal spine
• And even more!!!

Wilbert is on the other side of this sea fan, highlighting a tiny pygmy seahorse with his dive light.
Wilbert is on the other side of this sea fan, highlighting a tiny pygmy seahorse with his dive light.

Swimming through the underwater tunnel, as we emerged whitecap reef sharks swam past!
Swimming through the underwater tunnel, as we emerged whitetip reef sharks swam past!
My next summertime adventure is planned for early May when I will be attending a 3-day workshop on seahorses.

Mt. Pinatubo

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Is global warming caused solely by humans or can global temperatures change naturally?

Human activities may be a large contributor to climate change in today’s world, but natural events also influence global temperatures. A common example are volcanoes: On June 12, 1991, Mt. Pinatubo erupted in northern Philippines spewing out 2.4 cubic miles of magma and releasing roughly 20,000,000 tons of sulfur dioxide. The particulate matter, ash, and reactions to form sulfuric acid together caused a 0.9°F decrease in global temperatures for the next 2 years.

Now 24 years after the eruption, hiking up this massive volcano is a breathtaking experience! On March 30, my crew of 6 loaded into an off-roading Jeep at 5am to make the trip. Stage one involved racing up a riverbed surrounded by huge canyon walls. Aboard the Jeep, seat belts were essential, as we tended to go flying when the vehicle powered over rock and water, sending water spraying in an engulfing ring. At a certain point (possibly because the engine overheated), we began our hike to the top.

View from the Jeep
View from the Jeep
Starting our hike
Starting our hike
Almost there!
Almost there!
The Crater Lake
The Crater Lake

Hiking a volcano…check! Everything is still more fun in the Philippines.

Check out a video of our ride: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_50Fhol4EgM

Aquaculture

I recently toured an aquaponics operation here in Odiongan, Romblon. The system, designed to sell produce commercially, is an inspiration to my office for potential future developments.
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Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture, growing marine animals such as fish or clams in captivity, and hydroponics, growing plants in water. The advantage is that the system inputs (fish food) yields two crops (ex. tilapia and lettuce) and uses about 1/10th of the water needed to water a standard gardening set up.

Tilapia tank, holding up to 70 fish
Tilapia tank, holding up to 70 fish

The tilapia are grown and harvested for food, while their waste serves as nutrients for the rest of the system.
Nitrification bacteria in the rock beds take the waste from the tilapia and convert it nutrients usable by the plants.
Nitrification bacteria in the rock beds take the waste from the tilapia and convert it nutrients usable by the plants.

Is aquaculture organic? Yes! No fertilizers, hormones or additives are needed. Although Tony, the Canadian operator of this farm, said that monitoring water quality, such as pH, is crucial. If his system is low on calcium, he likes to add an eggshell to be filtered through his rock beds.
Newly planted lettuce
Newly planted lettuce

The roots sit in the nutrient-rich water, while sunlight fuels plant growth.
The roots sit in the nutrient-rich water, while sunlight fuels plant growth.

This system reduces energy needs and can operate in places without soil such as parking lots or schools. We hope to start a future aquaponics system at our provincial fish ponds so that the waste from our tilapia will also be recycled for fish growth.