Goat Dispersal Project for Typhoon Victims

Success!!! My $3,500 USD project was fully funded and implemented. We delivered 48 goats (44 female and 4 male) to families on Banton Island. These families had their homes and livelihoods destroyed when Typhoon Nona hit just before Christmas last year. Now the people of Banton can slowly regain their status as a goat farming island increasing food security and economic development. Each recipient will return one female offspring from their adopted goat and our program will continue to expand even after I leave the Philippines. Here’s a look at the project:

Approaching Banton Island via banka (traditional Filipino bamboo boat) was a 2-3 hr boat trip with my two counterparts Ate Lettie and Sir Jay from the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples. The island is super mountainous with roads so steep I swear they top Baldwin Street in New Zealand (the current Guinness Book of World Records holder as steepest residential road). Jay  brought his motorbike along on the boat ride so he could drive around once we arrived.

On May 18th we had an orientation program with all beneficiaries. The mayor of Banton (red shirt) gave opening remarks, I gave a speech in Tagalog about the project, and others educated the beneficiaries on the practice of raising goats.

“If female goats have only 2 nipples, what happens if they have 3 kids?” This query and others were addressed during our question and answer session following the program. Lastly, all participants signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) stating they agree to raise their goat and will return one female offspring after the first breeding. These MOAs were super official and required left and right thumbprints in addition to signature. Unfortunately, we misplaced the stamp pad so everyone scribbled on their thumbs with a pen and quickly stamped. Working as a Peace Corps Volunteer is an experience in creative solutions with limited resources.

How do you weigh a goat in the Philippines? If you want to hear a goat scream for dear life, this is a sure way to do so: tie it up and hang it upside down from a tree with a scale. The goats were priced based on total kilos, thus each one was strung up and weighed. The goat farmer (light pink shirt weighing goat) was also our driver in goat delivery. Banton island has fully cemented roads, however they are extremely narrow, meant for motorbikes not 4-wheel vehicles or sidecars. Sometimes passing people meant running so close to the edge that the wheel tire was partially hanging off! I held my breath and held the goats inside our little sidecar.

On one uphill a goat jumped out of the sidecar entirely! Luckily our driver was an expert and not only avoided running it over, but also kept the vehicle from running backwards down and off the cliffside. I quickly hopped out and heaved the goat back inside. We retied her quite a bit tighter. Keeping multiple goats inside a small cage, while flying full speed along narrow mountain roads is no small feat. I was constantly rescuing limbs protruding from their designated position.

The sun set and we were still not finished. My 2-man team and I proceeded to climb a mountain that night to visit a goat farmer at the top (photo above left). But the excitement and gratitude of the beneficiaries (above right) was well worth our efforts.

Check out the goats in their new homes (above). Throughout the entire island destruction was omnipresent even now 5 months months after the typhoon. The town shown above was the hardest hit barangay.

Marine Aichmophobia: the sea urchin

If you suffer from aichmophobia (fear of needles/spines), this blog post is for you.

Sea urchins belong in the Kingdom Animalia and the Phylum Echinodermata along with seastars, sea cucumbers and sand dollars. All echinoderms share the common characteristic of spiny skin, tube feet, and pental radial symmetry.

For some the name “sea urchin” may inspire fears of an underwater monster capable of stabbing you at any moment. But in reality sea urchins are mostly sessile, meaning they live relatively stationary on the bottom of the ocean. If you watch where you step, sea urchins are easily avoidable.

Sea urchins play an important role in the ecosystem: they feed on seaweeds, allowing more space for corals to grow. When an outbreak of disease killed off the majority of Diadema sea urchins in Jamaica in the 1980s coral reefs became tangles of algae, until the sea urchin population recovered and restored balance to the ecosystem.

In California and here in the Philippines we have the opposite problem: an overabundance of sea urchins that consume entire habitats and leave behind rocky rubble sea barrens. In California groups of scuba divers remove excess sea urchins from the ocean to prevent consumption of their precious kelp forest habitat.

We have yet to take action to combat this sea urchin problem here in the Philippines. Scientists have suggested translocating excess sea urchins to locations with and overabundance of algae. Take a look at our sea urchin problem below. It is enough to inspire marine aichmophobia in any nearby swimmer.

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Imagine stepping on one of these. Proper first aid involves removing the spines with tweezors as soon as possible. Then, soak the wound in hot water and rinse. Apply antibiotic ointment to any wounds to prevent infection.
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Sea urchins have one eye on each tube foot amounting to hundreds total! However the sea urchin eye is merely a photosensor, sensing light and dark.

Coral, Fish, and Jellies

An important part of natural resource management is measuring exactly how much of that resource is present to determine how it changes over time. For a marine biologist this means scuba diving and counting all the live hard coral and soft coral under a transect line (a huge 50m tape measure)

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John counts coral and records the data on a plastic underwater dive slate. Did you know that pencils write above water and below?!

The second part of our assessment is a fish population survey, where we swim along the transect line and count every fish and record the species and size class. The problem of overfishing in the Philippines means that most fish are <10cm in size, big fish are rare.

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Notice the lionfish hiding upside down under the beautiful colony of boulder coral. Lionfish may look majestic, but those dorsal spines pack some painful venom, so don’t touch!
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An Orange skunk clownfish (Amphiprion sandaracinos) stares at my underwater camera. This fish is named for the white line that runs along its dorsal ridge, like a skunk’s white stripe.
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That scuba diver on the left is ME and that sting ray in the distance is a MANTA RAY!!! Checkmark on my life list, that moment was incredible!

The manta ray photo above did not happen during our coral reef surveys in Romblon. These creatures are a rare find, but Manta Bowl dive site in Donsol, Sorsogon is a great place to find one if it is also on your life list.

Dive assessments and manta rays…if only that was the happy ending, instead our team of scuba divers emerged from our last dive with a super itchy full body rash!

After some investigation we determined that our unfortunate participation prize was “Sea Bather’s Eruption,” a rash caused by invisible jellyfish larvae that get caught in your clothing and become stressed. The stress triggers their stinging cells to fire, which condemned us to two weeks of intense itching! 😦

Jellyfish spawn in the warm waters of summer. We were particularly unlucky because there was no current whatsoever on our last dive. My best advice to avoid 2 weeks of scratching: stay low in the water column if it is the season for jellyfish larvae. I was feeling somewhat cold and tried to stay in the higher warm water, but if you dive below the thermocline you may avoid the worst of their itchy wrath.