What should I pack?

Thinking about moving to the Philippines?! Here are some more useful items I brought along with me…

1) Umbrella: Filipinos use umbrellas year round! In the rainy season you never know when the sky will open up and dump on you, but in the heat of summer your umbrella is a much needed shelter from the sun. I brought mine from home because umbrellas made here fold up on the outer edge as they collapse, whereas American umbrellas all fold down. Take your pick but there is nothing worse than an inside out umbrella.


2) Snorkeling gear & dive computer: if you expect to scuba dive it is much easier to rent or borrow gear than to travel with your own, however your own properly fitting mask and a pair of fins are invaluable for spontaneous snorkeling. Also a dive computer allows you to maximize your dive time and increase personal safety. I couldn’t imagine diving without it.

3) Pasalubong: Filipinos have an imperative tradition that after returning from traveling you bring back a small gift characteristic of the place you are coming from. Pasalubong may be small candies or obvious tourist items. Some things you cannot buy in the Philippines include cheeze its, wheat thins, swedishfish, sourpatch kids, any American cereal, uno. A few weeks ago I tried to buy stickers, and surely these must be sold in Manila, but in Odiongan, Romblon they do not sell any of the “Great job!” Or “You’re Awesome” stickers, which American elementary teachers commonly place on excellent assignments.

4) Bike lights: For us Peace Corps volunteers unable to ride a motorcycle, a bicycle may be your primary form of transportation. I packed my helmet and bike lights. Specifically, my front bike light is very bright and easily detachable so it is not stolen. Because I recharge it by usb, I never need batteries and it has saved me in many brownouts I am otherwise unable to navigate the darkness. Thanks Dad for recently mailing me a second light!

5) If you like fish identification as much as I do, the Tropical Pacific Reef Fish Identification and possibly Reef Critter Identification books by Allen, Steene, Humann & DeLoach will be your bible. The Peace Corps also has copies of these books in their library but I prefer to carry my own and ID fish after I dive.

And for future Peace Corps volunteers no need to pack sunscreen, bugspray, or dental floss. This will all be included in your Peace Corps-issued medical kit. Refills can be requested by texting our doctor, who then mails needed items directly to your site!

Fish facts

Over the past few months I have habitually sent out interesting facts about fishes and other marine life via text message. Here is a recap of the info:

Blacklip Butterflyfish (Chaetodon kleinii)

Dec 14 – If you love to snooze, your spirit fish is a wrasse! At dusk they are the first to bed down either buried in sand or wedged in the reef and typically the last to rise at daybreak.

Dec 7 – Soapfishes, related to grouper, are typically smaller and cryptic. They get their name from their ability to exude a soapy skin toxin called grammistin which makes them unpalatable to predators.

Dec 1- Moray eels regularly open and close their mouths to move water over their gills for respiration giving a misleading appearance of aggression.

Nov 3 – Frogfish have a thin, extendable first dorsal spine used as a lure to attract prey. (Related to bright glowing lure of sharp fanged deep water anglerfish in Nemo) Frogfish store their lure flat against their backs when not in use. Some lures are so specialized they have head, carapace, legs and black dot eye like a shrimp! Regeneration in a few months after consumption but never as pristine.

Squid have specialized cells called chromatophores that allow them to change color

Oct 28 – Parrotfish make mucus sacks to sleep in each night because it camouflages their scent from predators like eels and protects against parasite.

Sept 20: Mollusk Monday: Giant clams contain the same type symbiotic zooxanthellae algae that lives inside coral polyps. Every giant clam contains a unique color pattern due to the zooxanthellae inside, but no pearl. Try an oyster, clam pearls are very rare.

Sept 9 – Fish fact: The dramatic color patterns of juvenile sweetlips are thought to mimic that of unpalatable soft bodied invertebrates like nudibranchs to avoid predation.

Sept 2 – Fish fact: Moray eels possess a second set of jaws located in the throat or pharynx. The eel first clamps with it’s outer jaw then attacks with it’s pharyngeal jaw to pull the prey down its throat and swallow. Watch it in slow motion on YouTube!

Aug 25 – Fish trivia: Which is more poisonous, scorpionfish or pufferfish? Pufferfish! Their flesh contains tetrodoxin toxin that has caused many human fatalities although licensed Japanese chefs remove the toxin and prepare pufferfish as a delicacy. Scorpionfish are not poisonous at all but venomous bc the toxin in their dorsal spine is injected not ingested. Try lionfish pizza, it’s delicious!

Tube sponges living on the deck of this wreck


Aug 20 – Gobies constitute 35% of the total number of fish found on coral reefs. Their fused pelvic fins from a disk-shaped sucker used to adhere to rocks or corals.

Aug 16 – Gobies typically live in male female pairs in burrows. In spawning burrows the female goby maintains a tall (6-13cm) rubble mound, for increased fast water flow over the burrow, which along with the male’s fanning action, oxygenates the eggs inside. If the female leaves the burrow it quickly loses height and males give up, eat the eggs and look for other making opportunities. Look for goby burrows the next time you snorkel!

July 31 – Turtle Tale: Even embryonic sea turtles breath air! If a turtle nest must be transferred do so within the first 6hrs. After 3hrs the embryo begins to attach to the inner shell membrane of the egg. Movement can cause mortality if eggs are tipped or shaken bc the embryo may detach and suffocate in its embryonic fluid. But if undisturbed, two months after being laid a baby sea turtle will emerge!

A sunken fishing vessel and artificial reef home to many fishes. We even got to swim inside.

July 28 – The lizardfish is a voracious carnivore that waits stationary on the bottom then darts upward to seize small fish swimming overhead. Its mouth is lined with small, but sharp teeth and its tongue even has inward directly teeth too!

July 24 – Squirrelfish and soldierfish with their red bodies and large eyes for nocturnal swimming are easily confused, but squirrelfish possess a sharp cheek spine which soldierfish lack. Thus the squirrel is more formidable than the soldier! Handle with care.

July 20 – Many fish change sex during the course of their lifespan including parrotfish, wrasse and emperors. Anemone fish are unique because most sequential hermaphrodites start female and transform into males while clownfish change to become female from initial boyhood.

All of these photos were taken with my GoPro and red underwater filter on a recent dive trip.

July 17 – Triggerfish get their name from their ability to lock their first dorsal spine erect which is then depressed by pressure on the trigger-like second dorsal spine. They use this ability to lock themselves into rock crevices at night.

Dolphin Rescue

Dec 17, 3pm “Nasa mababaw na bahagi ng dagat ang stranded na dolphin. Bilis!” [A dolphin is stranded on the beach. Come quickly!] With that call my training as a First Responder through the Philippine Marine Mammal Stranding Network was put to use.

Victim: Subadult Spinner Dolphin, 1.85m. She had been tossed about in the recent typhoon and was covered in cuts and scrapes along her pectoral fins, back, stomach and nose. She was extremely weak and could not control her buoyancy.

Notice all the scrapes and cuts on her underside when I stuck my GoPro underwater to take a photo.

When I arrived a fisherman was in the water supporting the dolphin. He explained that he tried about ten times to return the dolphin to deeper waters, but she continued to return to the shallows. A crowd of people gathered on shore to watch.

How do you rescue a dolphin?! Luckily just one year ago myself and my Filipino counterpart completed a Dolphin First Responder Course (think CPR course where your dummies are actually trained dolphins. Read the Blog here) At the time I never expected to actually get to put our training into practice.

Rescue Protocol Summarized:

  1. Approach with care – 1-3 rescuers only
  2. Give supportive care – support the dolphin in an upright position
  3. Protect the blow hole, eyes, and pectoral fins – protecting the blowhole is most important so the dolphin can breathe
  4. Minimize noise – manage crowding spectators
  5. Assess condition and appropriate determine response
Peace Corps Life…often means working in an office where losing electricity is just part of the experience but today it meant riding in an ambulance alongside a typhoon-injured dolphin!

We decided to transfer the dolphin to our Marine Breeding Station for recovery away from the still turbulent post-typhoon waters. With the help of local police and government officials the dolphin water placed onto a stretcher and loaded into an ambulance for transport.

The dolphin was placed in a saltwater holding tank. Wet towels and frequent splashes were placed on her back to keep her skin moist, even so it started to become dry and wrinkled by day 2. The life jacket was essential, without it our weakened dolphin would fall to the bottom of the tank unable to resurface for air.

How does a dolphin drink? Although dolphins live in the ocean they need water without salt to stay hydrated. Once our dolphin was safely in a tank we began to worry about dehydration. In the wild, dolphins get enough freshwater by eating fish. Despite our best efforts Sara (they named the dolphin after me once they found out it was a girl) did not want to eat any fish. Next, Ma’am Rita tried to hold her mouth open while I spooned in ice cubes, but Sara spit those out too. Our only option was force feeding a fish/ice smoothie:

Two towels were inserted into her mouth which Kuya Casear (yellow) and Kuya Albirth (green) used to hold her mouth open. After snapping this photo I held her body as tightly as possible to prevent movement, while Ma’am Rita (under veterinary guidance) inserted a feeding tube and pumped in fish smoothie.

By Day 2 We thought that Sara, the dolphin, was improving but then on the morning of Day 3 her cuts started to look infected. Dolphins are conscious breathers meaning they must choose to take each breath and cannot ever sleep like we do. Instead they rest one hemisphere of their brain at a time, while the other side remains awake and breathing. When Sara died on the evening of Day 3, I would guess that it was a combination of stress from losing her family and living in a foreign place, superficial infection, and physical weakness from typhoon-sustained injuries. We conducted a necropsy before burying her remains and photos/reports were submitted to the Philippine Marine Mammal Stranding Network for analysis.

Dolphins are extremely intelligent. They live in groups called pods and can communicate via clicks and calls. The brain of a dolphin contains 3xs more spindle cells, used for feeling emotions, than human brains have. They can recognize themselves in a mirror.

Today, dolphins are threatened by fishing nets, habitat destruction, and chemical pollution. The underwater explosion of illegal dynamite fishing can damage a dolphin’s hearing so that it cannot hunt for food. Although our dolphin did not survive, I hope that our response led to greater public awareness to the need to protect both dolphins and their habitat. And should another dolphin wind up injured on our beach, this community is ready to respond!

Lahat ng mga dolphin at whales dito sa Pilipinas ay nasa tala ng nanganganib na species sa ilallim ng Fisheries Administrative Order No. 208 in 2001. Kaya illegal lahat ng aksyon na sangkot ang mga dolphin at whales at sino mang mahuhuli ay papatawan ng pinakamataas maparusa. Kung may makikita kayong dolphin at whales na stranded agad-agad tawagan ang Ofisina ng Provincial Agriculture 5393567 (cell 09088662872 or 09487339431) at Bureau of Fisheries 5676011 (cell 09399385006).