Category Archives: Learning & Trivia

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.

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:

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

Trash

How long does it take for trash to breakdown? Here are the estimates I tell school children when teaching about solid waste management:

  • Apple core (1-2 weeks)
  • Paper (2-4 weeks)
  • Clothing (1-5 months)
  • Wooden furniture (1-4 years)
  • Tin/Steel Can (100 years)
  • Aluminum can (200-500 years)
  • Plastic bottle (500-1000 years)
  • Glass jar (over 1000 years or never)

Reduce, reuse, and recycle! Some great practices are in place here already, such as a plastic ban at our local market, requiring that shoppers bring their own reusable shopping bags. However this policy depends on which stand you go to because some vendors will place your vegetables in plastic even while telling you that it is bawal (illegal).

The greatest success I have seen is in recycling of glass bottles. All local corner stores require that if they sell you a gatorade (yes, I buy gatorade in a glass bottle here!) you return that very bottle back to their store. The merchant must then return the bottles to the stocking company which refills them time and time again. Cash incentives for this bottle return mean that some merchants will even knock on your door asking for the bottle back if you do not follow through.

The biggest problem with solid waste management is an omnipresent mindset that trash can just be thrown on the ground, in the gutter, or out the window. Most recently, I was riding on a small banka (boat) and noticed a fellow passenger’s snack wrapper floating off into the waves. “Sayang” (“What a pity!”) I said.

“No it’s okay,” he replied. “It was empty.”

This mentality is really hard to break. When you see chips bags and styrofoam containers lying on the ground already, trying to convince someone to instead look for the sometimes scarce trash can to toss their empty candy wrapper seems impossible. And yet we environmental volunteers try. This summer (March-May is summer in the Philippines) I will be assisting with a kids camp designed to teach proper trash disposal, composting, and the 3Rs. The camp will coincide with new waste disposal bins and a community coastal clean up.

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The local dump

Finding places to put our waste is a global problem. (Last year I heard on the news that Canada was exporting its trash to the Philippines sparking local Filipino outrage.) Reduce, reuse, recycle is the best solution! Where can you apply the 3Rs in your daily life?

 

The Real Killer: Sharks or Selfies

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Beware: Within the past year more people died while taking selfies than from shark attacks.

A few months ago, while climbing the tallest mountain on my island, a group of Filipinos stood on a large rock near the summit to take a group selfie. When this large rock broke loose several of the group were injured and one climber was crushed by the large boulder. Evacuation meant carrying this individual in an improvised stretcher down the mountain and transporting them to a hospital in Manila where they spent several days in critical condition.

I have not yet seen a shark in my Philippine province. But I have dove with thresher sharks, hammerheads, nurse sharks, white tip and black tip reef sharks, and a potential bull shark that was hard to identify from far away both in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and have never felt threatened much less attacked. My closest encounter was diving at the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium where the Big Ocean Exhibit sharks like to brush up against you like a dog or cat as you scrub the aquarium glass.

Humans kill approximately 100 million sharks each year (2013). Help protect sharks from human predators. Help protect yourself by using your senses while taking selfies.

Stories

My goal for this blog entry is to share three mini stories each fulfilling one of three characteristics identified as common among viral internet stories: positivity, emotional appeal, and practical knowledge.

First story: one of my favorite fruits of all time is pineapple! Here in the Philippines, pineapples are so incredibly sweet and juicy that I tend to eat the entire pineapple including the core. When my family and coworkers noticed this it was met with bafflement and later shared with laughter in many households that evening. Furthermore, I also like to eat the nutrient-rich skin of sweet potatoes. Imagine the surprise of my host family when they set aside their own peels for the trash and I proceeded to eat them.

Kindergarden students presenting a
Kindergarden students presenting a “Nutrition month” song and dance.

Second story: during the course of the Blog It Home Competition voting, I discovered that I am 4 degrees separated from the Director of the entire Peace Corps operation, Carrie Hessler-Radelet. Generously, a relative of hers forwarded my blog onto her with an enthusiastic, personal recommendation!

And my final story: as a true marine science nerd, I regularly send out “Fish Fact” blast texts to everyone in my Filipino cell phone. For those of you who cannot receive the texts here is some interesting info about our beloved Nemo fish:

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Fish Fact: Many fish change sex during the course of their lifespan including parrotfish, wrasse, and emperors. Anemonefish are unique because most sequential hermaphrodites start female and transform into males, while clownfish change to become female from initial male status, meaning that little Nemo may one day be not only a father, but possibly a mother too!

I want to share knowledge in such a way that people not only learn something, but talk about it after reading. Jonah Berger, from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, recommends positive, emotionally-charged and practically useful content in his co-authored article, “What Makes Online Content Go Viral?” With this in mind the 3 stories above were told with the hope of hooking and therefore retaining my new, much larger, audience pool. Take a guess which story corresponds to which characteristic and then continue to share!

Standing on a Spanish fort in the provincial capital, Romblon.
Standing on a Spanish fort in the provincial capital, Romblon.

Life is Epic!

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Who has more spindle neurons: the dolphin or the human??

Cetaceans have a 3xs greater concentration of these brain cells than humans! Any guesses on the purpose of these valuable brain cells???

Spindle neurons are our social cells. They are the emotion processors of the brain and allow us to both feel love and know suffering. Dolphin songs and shrieks or the contagious nature of a human smile 🙂 Thanks to spindle neurons my blog can serve a purpose. And you can understand the story.

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Here’s a video link to my Epic in the Philippines thus far. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGnYTM3tkX0

Life is epic! But it is also simple and whether you are American, Filipino, orca or humpback we share this planet so put those spindle neurons to use and find a cause you are passionate about. Did you know we receive greater happiness from giving than receiving?!

Me and my supervisor Nanay Rita at the Philippine Marine Mammal Stranding Conference in 2014
Me and my supervisor Nanay Rita at the Philippine Marine Mammal Stranding Conference in 2014

The Life Molecule

Molecules of liquid dihydrogen oxide make up roughly three-quarters of every human baby. Traveling around the world you might hear this ‘life molecule’ referred to as tubig, nsuo, or wata. In my childhood home, the H2O flowing through our pipes was known best as “water.”

And water is life.

It sits on the first level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Yet, one out of eight people lacks access to clean water. In developing countries, women walk an average of 3.7 miles each day to get water. And the world’s poorest often survive on less than 5 gallons of water per day.1

However when your showerhead can gush warm water until your fingers turn to prunes, this distant and faceless problem is easily carried out of mind. It flows down the drain along with the estimated 100 gallons of water that Americans consume each day.1

Although I am entirely guilty of taking countless long, hot showers, access to water is no longer a faceless issue in my life. In July of 2014, I joined the U.S. Peace Corps and moved to the Philippines as a volunteer. Now, roughly one year later, I am intimately aware of the problems that come from both too much and too little water.

Mainit Falls, Philippines
Mainit Falls, Philippines

Tubig [too-big], Tagalog language, Philippines

May marks the tail end of the dry season here. Many mornings turning the knob of the sink faucet does little to clean one’s hands, much better to fill the bucket the evening before. Our drinking water comes from a 12-stage water filter, an expensive investment, but now we can drink from the home rather than frequenting the local AquaBest for a jug of mineral water. However on this particular night the tap is open, but the one-liter plastic coke bottle sitting under its spout still remains empty. We have 22 such bottles in total that we refill whenever possible, although if the water does not return later tonight we will be down to 6 liters of drinking water for tomorrow. Six liters, five people, and 91 degrees Fahrenheit. Luckily, the water has returned every night thus far.

At midnight when I awoke to use the CR (for comfort room), as bathrooms are called here, I saw my Lola Daisy standing by the sink refilling each of the bottles. She was stretching as she waited, both to stay fit and to stay awake.

Our coke bottles of purified drinking water and the water filter shown top right
Our coke bottles of purified drinking water and the water filter shown top right

My water access is privileged compared to Sarah Meyers, representing the Peace Corps in Ghana, or Asha Phadke, Peace Corps Jamaica. Even other regions of the Philippines face more dire circumstances than me. In Romblon, the capital of my province, but a much smaller island than my own, Peace Corps volunteer Diana Ashbaugh must wake up at 5am each summer morning to fill her buckets with water. Although water is piped directly into her home, during the summer months it runs for only about one hour every day and so Diana’s two buckets must provide for her showering and washing until 4am the next day.

Forty six percent of people worldwide do not have water piped into their homes.1

Ghana, photo credit: S Meyers
Ghana, photo credit: S Meyers

Nsuo [en-sue-oh], Twi language, Ghana

“I get my water from a borehole near my house,” reported Sarah. Moving from South Carolina to Ghana, Sarah now falls within this 46 percent. “I take bucket baths and use about two liters each time.” In a given day Sarah may use as little as a single gallon or as much as five gallons when she needs to wash her clothes. “The borehole that I use is seasonal and I have to go to a different, further one during the dry season.” During the rainy season, local waterfalls are a national treasure, however risk from waterborne pathogens means that swimming in many falls is off limits to Peace Corps volunteers.

Although water is a precious commodity, it is also a means for celebration. Local tradition includes throwing water on a birthday celebrant throughout the day, culminating in a huge, final drenching. “I just had my birthday and got pounded [with water] for about ten minutes and then we had a dance party!” It is through the strength and support of Sarah’s community that families are able to get by in the hottest and driest months.

Wata [waah-ta], Patois language, Jamaica

Visitor: “I noticed that people used the resources very differently in Asha’s community. I mostly noticed the way they used water. Unlike in the United States they all saved water and only used what they needed. Boiling rain water to drink it and flushing the toilet by yourself are definitely things we don’t come across every day [in the United States].”

Asha: “Where I live now, running water is not a given. Rainwater is harvested, and then pumped through the house if that is afforded. The pressure is slow, and often doesn’t reach a second story or showerhead, let alone a toilet. There are no leaky pipes—because the water would run out if that were to happen. The toilet is flushed with a bucket of water, using way less than the toilet where I come from. Here we can see the finite amount of water we have until the next rain.”

Approximately 70 percent of worldwide water demand is used for agriculture. Of this amount more than half is lost due to leaky or inefficient irrigation systems.2

The start of the typhoon rain outside my host family's house.
The start of the typhoon rain outside my host family’s house, Philippines.

Tubig [too-big], Tagalog language, Philippines

Issued by PAGASA (the Philippine Weather Bureau) at 5:00 am, Saturday, 06 December 2014: “Typhoon RUBY continues to threaten Samar provinces while maintaining its course. Maximum sustained winds of 195km near the center and gustiness of up to 230kph”

“Residents of low lying and mountainous areas are alerted against flashfloods and landslides. Likewise, those living along the coast are warned on the occurrence of big waves associated with storm surge which may reach up to 4.5 meters.”

Within 48hrs this super-typhoon was predicted to make landfall within my province. Evacuation is not an option. As the ocean waters become rough, boat trips into and out of the province stop running. “Where will you go?!” demanded a flurry of emails from my family and friends in the United States.

Where do all the people living in small island communities go during these storms? People whose entire families, homes, and livelihoods are here in this place. The only feasible option is to find a safe structure and wait. My host family moved to the large church building in town with other members of their parish. Others gathered in schools or at the provincial hospital. As Peace Corps Volunteers we consolidated to a 3-story hotel designated as our safe point.

Prior to Super-Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013, the term “storm surge” was unknown to many Filipino families. Typhoons are a part of Filipino culture, a routine. However as sea levels rise and ocean waters warm, super-typhoons like Haiyan will become more frequent. This time the province of Romblon was lucky; the path of Typhoon Ruby strayed north and missed our islands. As a volunteer in the Philippines, I still have one more season of typhoons in my future. One season, unlike my host brother Andrew Famero, who has already experienced 40 seasons and hopes that his two young daughters Andrea and Miel will be able to continue to call this place home despite many more typhoons in the future.

Water [waah-ter], English language, United States

One year prior to enlisting in the Peace Corps, I enrolled in an Environmental Studies Master’s program at the College of Charleston. “Who’s teaching Earth Systems Science spring semester?” I inquired before committing myself to the course.

“Someone new.” It was a gamble, but the course syllabus sparked my interest so on January 6, 2014 I found myself in room 200 of the Sciences & Mathematics Building waiting for a lecture on the Hydrosphere and Modeling. Little did I know that course would enlighten my understanding of water as dramatically as living in the Philippines.

Worldwide water may be drawn from wells accessing groundwater (water which sits below the Earth’s surface submersing the layers of sand and rock) or it can be taken from surface water such as rivers, lakes, or glacial melt, or finally ocean water may be desalinated for use. Water crisis occurs when overuse of groundwater lowers the water table, requiring continuously deeper wells or when lakes and rivers run dry from exhaustive use.

Compounding this problem is the still high cost of desalination. Some solutions include rainwater retention, recycling wastewater, and a collaborative effort toward more efficient water consumption. In Albuquerque, New Mexico water-conscious homeowners utilize low-flow toilets and drip irrigation as part of a citywide effort that reduced water use from an average of 140 gallons per day to 80.1

Why conserve water? If you pay your water bill each month, is that not enough? Will using low-flow fixtures really mean that there is more water in the well when that poor woman has put in her daily 3.7-mile journey?

We live in a global community and although you may have never met that woman, your fate and hers are tied to the same planet, the same hydrosphere of water that has existed since the dinosaurs walked the Earth, no more no less. Human actions have dramatically altered the distribution of water throughout the world. When your water consumption depletes local water resources faster than they can be replenished habitats are lost and animals are threatened, eventually placing the health of ecosystems – even ourselves – at risk. Worldwide droughts and floods may become more and more frequent.

Water is life. Our planet contains enough water to support our growing population if we are efficient and conscientious in our use. Western cities could learn from the wisdom of developing communities in reducing daily water consumption.

At what point of a water crisis would a bucket bath fall within your comfort zone? Find out where your water comes from before it flows out of your showerhead.

A community water pump on Banton Island in Romblon, Philippines. In the back a Filipino girl just finished her bath.
A community water pump on Banton Island in Romblon, Philippines. In the back a Filipino girl brushing her hair after her bucket bath.

References and Acknowledgements:

  1.  “Water: Our Thirsty World.” National Geographic Magazine. April 2010.
  2.  “Water Scarcity.” World Wildlife Fund. 2015. Washington, DC. https://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/water-scarcity.

Many thanks to my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers who shared their experiences:

More information can be found on the National Geographic website at: http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/freshwater/

Additional information on Hydrology and Earth Systems Science can be found at the follow link to Dr. Julie Ferguson’s lectures from the University of California Irvine:

Anthropogenic Climate Change: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kxLtbWHeqy4

Freshwater: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=seq-Wuxwba8

Reef Fish & Photography

Check out some photos from my recent diving adventures along reefs outside of Dumaguete City and off of Malapascua Island in Cebu.

Longfin Spadefish (Platax teira)
Longfin Spadefish (Platax teira)

The above photo was taken using a red filter on my gopro camera. When shooting underwater a red filter is useful because water absorbs and scatters light as it passes through. The long wavelengths of light (especially red, orange and yellow) are absorbed first. As you travel deeper in the ocean, there are no red wavelengths of light to reflect off various fish or corals. All of the marine life looks blue or green, because these colors are shorter in wavelength and able to penetrate to greater depths. Therefore when I looked at the algae-covered mooring line that the Longfin Spadefish above are swimming by it appeared blue, because that was the color reflected back to my eye. However, when my red gopro filter added back in the red wavelengths you can see the beautiful colors of the marine life growing on this rope.

Below is a photo taken without a red filter, demonstrating the blue underwater world seen by a SCUBA diver. For any aspiring underwater photographers, I would recommend buying the red filter! (Note: all other photos in this post used the red filter)

Latticed Sandperch (Parapercis clathrata) resting on a blue seastar
Latticed Sandperch (Parapercis clathrata) resting on a blue seastar
Spotfin Lionfish (Pterois antennata)
Spotfin Lionfish (Pterois antennata)

The lionfish above falls in the family Scorpaenidae or Scorpionfish. These fish are so named for their venomous fin spines, particularly the dorsal spine along their backs. Toxins are produced by glands on either side of the spines and embedded into long grooves along the spines. Fortunately, scorpionfish do not actively try to spear divers with their venomous fins. In fact, most fish (sharks are fish too!) tend to swim away from you.

Scorpionfish, unidentified (please comment if you know the species)
Scorpionfish, unidentified (please comment if you know the species)

Some scorpionfish, like the one shown above, are master’s of camouflage. I recommend not touching anything while underwater because it is deceivingly easy to place your hand on the rocky ground only to realize you discovered a scorpionfish’s hiding spot. The pain from a scorpionfish sting may very from uncomfortable to intense. Immersion in hot water may offer some relief. Best practice while snorkeling or diving: “Take only pictures and leave only bubbles.”

Painted Frogfish (Antennarius pictus)
Painted Frogfish (Antennarius pictus)

The fish shown above can change to almost any color including black, red, pink, orange, yellow and brown. Frogfish have extremely large mouths which can open to the width of their bodies to engulf prey. Also known as Anglerfish, frogfish possess a stalk-like first dorsal spine, equipped with a lure (esca) which they wiggle like a casting rod to attract prey. The esca may be shaped like a small fish, shrimp or just a nondescript tuft depending on the species.

Flamboyant cuttlefish (Metasepia pfefferi)
Flamboyant cuttlefish (Metasepia pfefferi)

The cuttlefish is a mollusk, classified by its soft body and closely related to the squid and the octopus. It has specialized cells called chromatophores, which allow it to change color almost in a continuous radiating pattern. Want to eat flamboyant cuttlefish for supper?? No! The muscle-tissue of the flamboyant cuttlefish is highly toxic. Fun Fact: This cuttlefish is considered poisonous because it must be eaten to cause damage, while scorpionfish are venomous because their toxin is injected through spines. Want more examples: Frogs, mushrooms and plants are poisonous, while snakes and spiders are venomous.

Robust Ghost Pipefish (Solenostomus cyanopterus)
Robust Ghost Pipefish (Solenostomus cyanopterus)

This male/female pair of pipefish is considered an indicator species, because they are fragile creatures easily threatened by small changes in the ecosystem. Therefore finding this pair is a good indication that the marine ecosystem at this dive site is still healthy.

Photographing the ghost pipefish pair.
Photographing the ghost pipefish pair.

Source: Allen, G., Steene, R., Humann, P. & DeLoach, N. (2012) Reef Fish Identification Tropical Pacific. New World Publications, Inc. Jacksonville, Florida, USA.

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).

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.