Tag Archives: Romblon

Snorkeling the Mangroves

If you have a mask and snorkel packed in your suitcase and a plane ticket to a tropical country, chances are you are planning to visit the coral reef. It’s true, the coral reef is a breath taking array of color and biodiversity, but the mangrove ecosystem lining the coastal shores may also hold tales of impressive beauty.

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A baby mangrove seedling sprouting up. Notice the pencil-like roots from mature mangroves coving the sea floor.

Mangroves are only found in the tropics and subtropics, however climate change is slowly causing their range to expand further north and south from the equator. They provide a home for juvenile fish who will move out to the coral reef as they mature.

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Look for sponges, tunicates, sea slugs, crabs, snails, sea stars, sea urchins and many different species of fish as you snorkel.

Want to snorkel the mangroves and the coral reef on an isolated island in the Philippines?! I would recommend Buenavista Fish Sanctuary in Looc, Romblon.

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Buenavista Fish Sanctuary Island, Looc, Romblon, Philippines

From shore you will take a small boat out to this tiny island, big enough for a one room hut and a cooking area. It is the perfect place for a picnic cookout. Jump into the water and explore the shallow waters of the mangrove habit, then swim a bit further from shore and see the coral reef. Buenavista is the lesser known fish sanctuary in Looc Municipality, but it is a beautiful tropical retreat!

2015 Video Highlights

Here’s some more info about the best clips in my video:

  • I spent my 26th birthday at 9 Waves Resort in Manila for our Peace Corps mid-service training seminar. Therefore my ‘happy birthday’ was multiple rides down the double loop waterslide!
  • Scuba diving in Apo Island featured the most extensive coral coverage I have ever seen! Contact Harolds Dive Center or Liquid Dumaguete. There are also great muck dives near Dumaguete, which is where I found the seahorse featured.
  • Most of the marine life was seen while diving off of Tablas Island, particularly in Ferrol, Romblon with First Buddy Tablas, the new local dive shop.
  • Wreck diving in Subic Bay had mediocre visibility, but exciting WWII ships to explore. My favorite was a submerged air pocket in one of the wrecks. We also saw an octopus. Contact Mark Walton at Camayan Divers for more info.
  • In December a Spinner Dolphin stranded in Odiongan Bay. Here you can see the footage from our rehabilitation efforts at the Marine Breeding and Research Station, including the 4 person process of feeding a fish smoothie via intubation. Thanks to the Philippine Marine Mammal Stranding Network for advising us in this rescue.
  • The music was taken from our government Employee’s Day dance routine (I also performed but was on the left side and outside the video frame). Imagine if American government offices had annual, compulsory, choreographed dance competitions?!!? We practiced for 3 weeks for this performance and handmade all costumes and props. Thanks to our choreographer Shakira for all the help!
  • Lastly, these two waterfalls are my favorites! Just a short bike ride from my home in Odiongan. Thanks to Kalen for trying to teach me how to dive, luckily my diving skills have improved substantially from this first attempt featured in the video.

Marine Research and Breeding Center

The newly completed fish tanks at the hatchery, less than one year ago a photo taken in this spot would have shown only coconut trees.
The newly completed fish tanks at the hatchery, less than one year ago a photo taken in this spot would have shown only coconut trees.

Last October 2014, I walked into a field of coconut trees and attended a ground breaking ceremony for Romblon’s soon-to-be Marine Research and Breeding Center. All around were sounds of frantic chopping and sawing. While this ground breaking marked the end of those coconut trees, now almost one year later stands a fish hatchery that is a source of employment in a very rural community and will maintain a provincial breeding stock of milkfish.

The construction is still ongoing but the hatchery is already operating!
The construction is still ongoing but the hatchery is already operating!
Milkfish, known locally as bangus
Milkfish, known locally as bangus

The milkfish is the national fish of the Philippines. Juveniles can be found in brackish estuaries and mangrove coastlines, but adults live and breed in the saltwater of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Milkfish aquaculture in the Philippines dates back roughly 800 years!

These milkfish are 12-years-old. Think back 12 years ago…what were you doing?! This important cargo had a private boat delivery from the larger Philippine island of Mindoro and will now be the breeding stock for our hatchery.
These milkfish are 12-years-old. Think back 12 years ago…what were you doing?! This important cargo had a private boat delivery from the larger Philippine island of Mindoro and will now be the breeding stock for our hatchery.

If you live in Romblon and are interested in starting milkfish aquaculture, you are in luck! Once your home fish pond or cage is approved to raise fish, you can purchase the fingerlings (baby fish) produced from the milkfish in the photo above. If you raise these babies to maturity, not only will you have food for your family (careful, the milkfish is quite bony!) but you can sell the fish at the local market for a profit.

I got to swim in the tank with the breeders!
I got to swim in the tank with the breeders!

Already this hatchery is a success! It has created numerous new jobs, it is a site for fisheries students to complete on-the-job training and skills development, its milkfish production is useful throughout the province, and it will be a site of ongoing research for improving fisheries technology. I visit the hatchery in my free time to help with operations or even to clean the tanks. Once, when we finished work early, I hopped in an empty fish tank with a staff member and taught a swim lesson!

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.

What is the Peace Corps?

“Our mission is to share knowledge and culture with people in other countries, and to bring their cultures back to the U.S. to share with Americans. Fundamentally, we work to build capacity of other peoples to foster sustainable peace.”                                                                                –Sarah Blazucki, Editor of the Peace Corps Time Magazine

Sharing a bit of coke and mentos culture...
Sharing a bit of coke and mentos culture…
Coco launching coke from a tower overlooking our island during a family activity event I coordinated.
Coco launching coke from a tower overlooking our island during a family activity event I coordinated.

I am a Peace Corps*. The official Peace Corps Office in Washington D.C. would call me a “Peace Corps Volunteer” or “PCV” for short. But here at my site in Odiongan, Romblon, Philippines, locals refer to me as their “Peace Corps.” My title is associated with characteristics of diligence, knowledge, and foreign appearance, though I have heard the title mistakenly applied to individuals of several different nationalities including, “She is their Australian Peace Corps” or “We had a Korean Peace Corps.” Others ask how they themselves can become a “Peace Corps.”

I do my best to explain that the official program is the United States Peace Corps and therefore you must be a U.S. citizen to be a “Peace Corps.” Other foreign governments, like Australia, offer different international volunteering programs distinct from the Peace Corps.

Possibly because the term “volunteer” is often omitted from my title, the idea that I have no salary and receive only a living allowance from the U.S. government to cover basic food, housing and transportation expenses is groundbreaking. My host family did not even realize until two weeks ago, when it came up at the dinner table.

My house is just down the block. Walking with fellow volunteers Loren and Drew.
Walking down the national road with fellow volunteers Loren and Drew. My house is just down the block.

Today is my one-year anniversary of becoming a “Peace Corps.” Last year, I was sitting in an airport wearing a bicycle helmet and strumming my ukulele, on my way to begin training, and today I am calmly listening to the sounds of typhoon rains outside my window while I prepare to lead training for the newest batch of Peace Corps Volunteers currently en route to the Philippines.

View from my front door this morning amidst typhoon rains
View from my front door this morning amidst typhoon rains

* “Corps” is properly pronounced like “core” but just as frequently I hear it improperly pronounced by Americans and Filipinos alike as “corpse.”

Mt. Guiting Guiting

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May 28, 2015 we set out to conquer the most technical mountain climb in the Philippines: Mt. Guiting Guiting. We were a group of 7 including two wilderness first responders, a soccer player, one Filipino movie star, one volunteer ascending for the 2nd time, another volunteer whose extreme fear of heights had him wondering why he joined in the first place and our Filipino guide who wore only slip on sandals.

At the park trailhead unloading the tricycle of camping food and water purchased in town.
At the park trailhead unloading the tricycle of camping food and water purchased in town.
Packing!
Packing!
Our crew about to set off, 6am May 28.
Our crew about to set off, 6am May 28.
Our Filipino mountain guide, Raymond. He was stoked to get all of our empty water bottles after we finished the climb. Notice the footwear.
Our Filipino mountain guide, Raymond. He was stoked to get all of our empty water bottles after we finished the climb. Notice the footwear.

Mt. Guiting Guiting, which means “jagged” is a 2,058 meter ascent. The first day is spent climbing to Mayo’s Peak where you make camp and offload gear before the summit attempt on the following day. After summiting climbers return to Mayo’s Peak for a second night sleeping in the tent and finally descend back to the National Park Headquarters on day 3.

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Source: John Larkins and Pinoy Mountaineer

Day 1: Biggest challenge was carrying packs loaded with 7-8 liters of water per person, plus one ukulele, five pounds of rice, several cans of tuna, sardines, beans and meat adobo, one camping stove, two tents, rain gear, sleeping bags and pads, a change of clothes and lots of snacks.

From the top of Mayo's Peak at the end of Day One
From the top of Mayo’s Peak at the end of Day One

Day 2: With only 3-4 liters of water for the day, no tents or stove, and thus significantly lighter packs, Mt. Guiting Guiting, itself was the challenge of Day 2. Her sharp ridgeline dropped off into a canyon on either side as we traversed the knife’s edge.

Just leaving Mayo's Peak, we were headed along that ridge to the tallest peak in the distance and then just past because what you see in the photo is actually the Peak of Deception.
Just leaving Mayo’s Peak, we were headed along that ridge to the tallest peak in the distance and then just past because what you see in the photo is actually the Peak of Deception.
This was just the start of some technical climbing!
This was just the start of some really technical climbing!
Still headed up.
Still headed up.
Our crew at the summit and above the clouds!!
Our crew at the summit and above the clouds!!

Day 3: Hard earned elevation fell quickly away as we made our descent back to camp headquarters. The best part was crossing the river as we neared the finish. The cool, clear water was a necessary thirty-minute swimming break.

Sibuyan Island, the site of this mountain, is known as the "Galapagos of the Philippines" for its terrestrial diversity and numerous endemic species. Here's a pitcher plant we found. Don't drink from it, I tried.
Sibuyan Island, the site of this mountain, is known as the “Galapagos of the Philippines” for its terrestrial diversity and numerous endemic species. Here’s a pitcher plant we found. Don’t drink from it, I tried.
Stickbugs were a much more exciting find than the wormlike leeches that attacked us during our Day One lunch stop. They would latch on and leave an itchy bump once you pulled them off.
Stickbugs were a much more exciting find than the wormlike leeches that attacked us during our Day One lunch stop. They would latch on and leave an itchy bump once you pulled them off.
Victory!!!
Victory!!!

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.”

Provincial Dive Team Training

One of my biggest projects at site is developing the Provincial Reef Assessment Team, a group of divers to conduct regular assessments of Romblon’s marine resources to ensure proper management. We hope to also identify areas for protection in the future. Here are some photos from our recent dive training session.

The Dive Team
The Dive Team

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We lay a 50m transect line and then record the substrate under the line to determine % coral coverage on a given reef.
We lay a 50m transect line and then record the substrate under the line to determine % coral coverage on a given reef.
We also conduct fish surveys of species diversity and abundance.
We also conduct fish surveys of species diversity and abundance.
And in typical Filipino style, our entire team can fit in one vehicle!
And in typical Filipino style, our entire team can fit in one vehicle!

32km Mountain Bike Race on Carabao Island

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Just south of Tablas Island is Carabao Island, only 8.5 sq miles (22 sq km) in size, I competed in their fiesta Bike-a-Thon: a 32km race around the island.

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About 40 participants competed in the event coming from various regions throughout Romblon and the Philippines. Biking is a growing sport here, although mostly among wealthy communities, because a mountain bike is an expensive pre-requisite to joining.

Notice all the bikes on the top of the boat!
Notice all the bikes on the top of the boat!

Transport to and from Carabao was via banka, boats loaded to the brim with people, bikes, and beer for the event and the upcoming weeklong fiesta. The race course was super intense with extreme vertical climbs, requiring a dismount from the saddle to make it to the top, but the views were worth it! White sand beaches, remote communities and my favorite part: a downhill single track on the ridge top of the mountain with bright red dirt flying beneath our tires.

Relaxing after the race!
Relaxing after the race!

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The day definitely lived up to the national slogan: “Everything is more fun in the Philippines!”