woensdag 20 mei 2015

Fiesta...party time!

Each city or village celebrates the day of his Patron saint. For Zamboanguita that was May 15 and nicely coincided with Annelies' birthday. Festivities already start a week before the actual date. Motorbike races, elections of miss Zamboanguita (the winner gets an astonishing 20.000 pesos), extra cockfights, boat races, disco and lechon parties are all part of the festivities. I'll elaborate on the nicest activities.

We visited the boat races on Saturday. There were two competitions, one for the fisherman boats, which had to peddle a full round (some 600 meters) and the race competition. 10 guys had boats they made themselves from marine plywood and metal outriggers with nice aerodynamics and a small engine. They had to race against one other competitor for two rounds. It looked a bit like a formula one race with nice maneuvers. Unfortunately, both in the semifinal and the final one of the boats gave up prematurely because either the outrigger broke, or the engine stalled. Look for some pictures on the facebook page of Annelies. The races were originally created because everybody has a hangover after the big party on May 15. People go to the beach anyway to have a swim to get rid of their hangover, so the municipality came up with some nice entertainment. Apparently the same guy wins each year, but because his engine stalled in the final somebody else won. The public demanded a second race and indeed, if his engine would have functioned he would have won easily.

We were invited for three lechon parties in two days. A wedding lunch, the birthday of the mayor and an invitation of a good friend of a friend. When Filipinos throw a party it includes food, and a lot of it. Prime dish is the lechon, or roasted piglet. A whole piglet gets roasted over a fire and they stuff some herbs in its belly. The result looks like some medieval painting, only missing the apple in the pigs' mouth. Prime parts (for Filipino's, not for most foreigners) are the ears, eyes and nose. They make a sauce from part of the blood and finely chopped organs (yummie). The pig is served on a wooden dish in the shape if a pig and two big carving knifes so you cut a part of meat of your choice with some crisp skin. The taste is pretty good (of the normal meat part), but after three lechons it is time for some vegetables again. Vegetables are not part of a special meal, you just have the choice between 5-7 different meat dishes and accompanied with rice of course. We got instructed that with parties it is very normal that if you are not a close friend of the birthday boy, you eat the food and then go again. The richer people are, the more people they invite. After two hours everybody has eaten (you're only supposed to stay for about an hour) and you continue the party only with family and close friends.

The wedding lunch was also nice because it gave us a peak into Filipino wedding customs. Everybody marries in church (that makes sense, the whole country is devotedly catholic), but very few people have enough money to rent the whole church for the service. So you marry with more couples at the same time. In this case mass started at 7 in the morning, so 16 couples could be married before various wedding lunches started. Tony, our Coastal Resource manager and close friend explained that when he married there were an additional 52 couples. He was last in the alphabet, so by the time he had to tell his vows he had already hard them 52 times and so it was easy to remember for him what to say.
We were only invited for the lunch since we didn't even know the bride, we had met the father a couple of times though. He used to be a sailor and had even been in the port of Rotterdam.

We visited one of the disco parties on Thursday evening. That was not really a success, they had a huge music installation and light show on the main square, but the square was so big that even with 300 people on the dance floor it seemed half empty. The DJ had a different opinion about good music than us, so we kept it at one party.

The municipality with the nicest Patron saint is the neighboring municipality of Siaton were we often dive. Their Saints day is on December 6 and is also known in the Netherlands as Sinterklaas!

maandag 11 mei 2015

Meeting interesting people

We have been pretty busy the last few months. Supervising volunteers, designing and carrying out the biological research, writing research ideas for new thesis students and interns while trying to relax a little bit in between all the activities as well.

We have had some good talks with local institutions. We had a visit from the director of the marine research institute of Siliman University in Dumaguete who was interested in what we are doing and were we live. Hopefully we will be able to cooperate with the university and for instance be able to use their marine lab if thesis students want to make water samples to check the level of pollution and sedimentation and see if we can help them with collecting data. Now it's time to visit the marine lab and talk with professors and teachers to find out exactly what they are doing and if they have data from this area.

Dolf attended a three day conference about seahorses in Dumaguete last week (somebody had to take the volunteers out diving so Annelies could only attend the fist day) and came back full of ideas and a new social network. At the least we can at least contribute to their seahorse research, because yesterday evening during our night dive we found two seahorses, including a pregnant male (yes you read this correctly, the male has a brood pouch).

We now have a good relationship with the mayor of Zamboanguita as well, which resulted in some useful talks and a cooperation with the municipal agricultural and environmental office.We are very lucky that the municipality starts a project in our own barangay (neighbourhood), with money from the GIZ (German embassy, we saw GIZ projects when we were in Bolivia as well). In two barangays of Zamboanguita Marine Protected Areas will be re-implemented or re-enforced. The MPA's will be enlarged and neighbouring sea grass beds and mangroves will be included in the MPA as well. They are important, though often neglected, because they have both a nursery function for fish (juvenile fish hide between the roots and leaves and are safe for predators) and function as a sink for sedimentation from land and thus protecting the coral reefs. We had a nice conversation with the provincial environmental department who is responsible for carrying out the project together with the municipality. We need some patience though: the project was supposed to start in January 2015, but the money still needs to be transferred to the municipality before it can start. The projects also contains a plan to start a mangrove nursery so people can replant mangroves. Our role will be to do the scientific monitoring of the area, to organize activities for the local monitoring team consisting of fishermen and to help out with the mangrove nursery and replanting.
We start coming Friday with finding the sinkers of the old MPA. The MPA needs to be visible for everybody which means the demarcation line will consists of buoys who need to be attached to concrete sinkers. The sinkers are still there from 6 years ago when the MPA was implemented the first time, but the buoys are long gone because of the 2011 typhoon.

The peace corps is very active in the Philippines and the municipalities of Zamboanguita and Siaton have their own volunteer. They work a lot with the local community and speak Visayan fluently. Unfortunately, both volunteers leave in September but we could take over their Visayan books, so now it's time for us to include Visayan lessons in the program and practice with our cook, who speaks both English and Visayan. The Zamboanguita peace corps volunteer already does a lot with environmental education and she even has two environmental clubs/ groups for high school students which we will take over when she leaves.

So, slowly slowly we start working together with more and more people and some of MCP's ideas are starting to take shape.

donderdag 19 maart 2015

Daily life at MCP

I have time to write this first part of the weblog, because the electrician had just cut the power which means I finally have time to write. It has been a busy time the last month with working days from 7h30 till 18h30, but we are functioning more and more as we have envisioned Marine Conservation Philippines to be and that is nice.
Of course there are ups and downs. Car problems arise on a regular basis and then there are the small funny problems. It turns out that in our house the lights are a bit weird. The porch light is permanently on, unless we cut all the power in our house and the switch for the porch light is an actual master switch with with you can turn on and off all the lights in our house. By the time it is fixed it is two weeks later, but look on the bright side, at least we always have light.

We are getting more and more in an organized daily rhythm, because the cars do not break down that often any more and we are getting more volunteers which means we have to start to work in a structured way. Our daily program is two dives in the morning, which takes actually the whole morning and part of the afternoon depending on where we dive and have lunch between 13h00 and 14h30.
The afternoon is used for presentations (learning different fish species, what MCP is about), data entry, watching a nature documentary or practical work on the base which ranges from making hammocks to design a fireplace, make a recycling system for waste or making concrete weights for the gym (unbelievable, I cannot even lift them 1 cm from the ground but that's just me).

The cook prepares really nice food, Filipino but also international. We even had sushi last week! We work from Monday to Friday, on Saturday we have a fun dive and Saturday afternoon and the complete Sunday we have weekend. Each Saturday evening we have a BBQ. So far we have not been doing overmuch during our Sundays. It is very nice to lie in Dolf's homemade hammock of fishing net and just read a book. Sometimes we go to Dumaguete, or just visit a restaurant and have a nice western meal for lunch.

There are a lot of small things that still need to happen, but for the coming months we have two workers permanently on the base who are making bamboo furniture, make small adjustments to the cabins and do a lot of other stuff. Each week we see the improvements. Not as fast anymore as in the beginning of course, because the other 25 workers are back to fishing again.

Researchwise we are now focusing on fish on species level on each dive site. Since there are 2000 different fish species in the Philippines, we only pay attention on the butterflyfish and angelfish for now. That is already a challenge, because it turns out we have 31 species of butterflyfish. By now, Dolf and me can recognize them all, but it is a challenge for new volunteers because some of them do not even know what a butterflyfish is to begin with.
But we designed a teaching system in which they learn a few new species each day on land through a powerpoint presentation, and we point them out underwater. After a few days they are able to do a test both above water and underwater and if they pass they can join in on the research.
We are now trying to analyze the first data, but that takes a while because our statistical skills are a bit rusty and of course we have to use an open source statistical program which works way different compares to the program we used in university. But with a good free online manual it's just a question of time before we can say something useful about our first results.

Since the weblogs are not that regular anymore, I advise people who want to have more info on a regular basis to have a look at the Marine Conservation Philippines facebookpage or like it. We upload pictures every once in a while as well as marine information (both semi-scientific or just newspaper articles as well as nice pictures about diving).

zaterdag 14 maart 2015

It is more fun in Zamboanguita

I wrote this weblog for the MCP site, but forgot to post it on our weblog. By now it is three weeks later, but the info is still correct.
We rephrase the national slogan of the Philippines which is used everywhere: it's more fun in the Philippines. The last two weeks we have been working together with our first three volunteers, hurray! At the moment we have a rescue course and we continue with data collection for our marine biology research, while we are exploring new dive sites in the meantime.
By now we have discovered some very suitable dive locations which can be used both for courses and research. We also had a look at the other site of the hill were we are living. From some lookout points we have a view on Tambobo bay in neighbouring Siaton, a nice small natural bay, which makes a perfect harbor.
After some climbing on rocks to enter the water, we discovered that if we had walked another 100 meters we would have had an easy beach access.  The coral looks very diverse and you can dive on a continuous reef for an hour. It seems we have found our perfect fun diving area with a white beach with palm trees nearby to relax afterwards. Palm trees remain dangerous at all times though. We had to wait a few minutes before we could enter with our car because people were harvesting coconuts. This  means that two guys climb into the trees and start dropping coconuts. You do want to wait because a coconut makes a nice dent in your car. One of the first things you learn here as a driver is to watch out for coconut palms when you park. Make sure your car is not under it!

One of the more difficult dive sites to reach with a car has now been explored as well. The first time we got stuck with our Kia Bongo in a bamboo fence. The road was very narrow and we thought we could just squeeze trough... Apparently not, because we didn't take into account that the fence wasn't actually straight. The lower part was bent outwards and one of the bamboo poles got stuck at the side of the car. Because a palm tree blocked our way out at the other site we had to maneuver back and forth with the bamboo scratching and scratching against the car. Eventually we got loose and now we have a big dent at the side of the car. We couldn't turn so we had to go to the dive site. The designated parking place was on the beach, were the car got stuck in the sand and we had to pull it out. Grumphh.
Today we returned to the same place but a 100 m to the south. This road to the beach was a much better option, even for people with limited driving skills in a big car since we managed to reach the dive site without car injuries. The dive was very very nice. The dive site is part of an MPA which has been enforced since 2009 and that shows in the size and occurrence of the fish. A lot of (big) groupers, parrotfish, sweetlips, a lot of snapper species and a lot of adult fish in general.

We have started with some pilot studies to figure out on which fish species we need to focus later. We started with looking at abundance of fish at family level in all the different dive sites, but it turned out that that idea was a bit too general. Most families occur at most dive sites. So we have gone down to species level. Since it is impossible to identify a lot of species at the same time, we are now focusing on butterflyfish and angelfish. Then you definitely see a difference between dive sites. In the meantime we learn a lot of new species as well. We take a camera with us on each dive and make pictures of a lot of fish. That is very useful. We thought we saw about 5 different species of snappers, but after identifying some pictures it seems we have about 9 species. If we discover a species and we have no clue what is it, even after flipping through several fish books, there is always id please, a facebook page were you post your picture and some additional data. Within 30 minutes you get a response of somebody who knows much more than us and that is usually correct.  Hopefully we increase our knowledge to an extent that instead of only posting pictures we are actually able to id pictures of others.

In the meantime construction work on the project site is going fast. The third hut for volunteers is almost ready, one of the staff huts is finished and the other will be done (hopefully) soon as well. The common area is looking better each day and the storage room in the kitchen is not a sleeping room anymore but can actually be used for groceries. The stupid mistakes workers sometimes make we take for granted (why cement and even paint a wall if the pipes for the water still need to be in the wall and make exactly the same mistake at the second hut... or why does it takes 3 efforts in 5 days to cement a bed at the right size so the mattress actually fits), because usually they are working really hard and do a good job. It all takes a bit longer, but in the end we will be having an awesome project site.

vrijdag 23 januari 2015

Our first volunteers

We have some time to relax and catch up with reading news and sending mails after a very busy 10 days. We have had our first volunteers for MCP the last two weeks, 36 at once! Ranum Efterskole, a Danish boarding school visited us with 33 students aged 15-16 years old and 3 teachers. They stayed at Bongo Bongo Divers in Dauin and we did the diving from there.
Half of the students did their open water and (part of their) advanced open water, while the other students followed a biology diving program, organised by us. The biology program consisted of learning to identify a few fish species and some invertebrates and try to identify them during a timed swim or along a transect line.

We were incredibly lucky watching whale sharks in Oslob. Most of the students have seen over 10 whale sharks and some of them almost run in to a whale shark while filming another one. The visibility was not that good, but because we were diving it was easy to swim from one whale shark to the next and looking back at some of the pictures people made, the view was still good enough to have a proper look at these magnificent beasts.
We don't know which dive students thought was most exciting, watching the whale sharks or their first night dive. It is a whole different world on the reef during the night, with (hermite) crabs, mantis shrimps, cuttle fish who sometimes look like moving rocks, and the waving arms of the corals.

Our last diving day with everybody was a trip to Apo island. Counting the number of burned backs of people I would say we got more than enough sun. The coral was beautiful and we saw turtles, sea snakes and of course a lot of (big) fish. There was also some time to explore Apo Island itself.

The program did not only consist of diving. We visited an elementary and a high school in Zamboanguita. That caused some interesting scenes, since the transport went by open truck. It is not very common to see 40 white people in a truck and this caused a lot of pointing, laughing and waving by Filipino's. Some of the smaller kids had actually never seen somebody with blue eyes and blond hair and started crying, but after it was time to go again they were hugging goodbye and told the students not to leave so their fear was easy to overcome. One of the students even got permission from the headmaster of the Dauin high school to join the Filipino students for a whole afternoon of classes. Apparently the Danish schools are much more relaxed than the Filipino schools, which invoked students to mention that from now on they would always do their homework. No uniforms, no Sir and Mam and rules are less strict.
The visit to the local waterfalls of Red Rock were well liked as well; it is always nice to try to swim as close to the waterfall as possible especially after a steep walk up the hill.

Dumaguete has been thoroughly checked out by everyone, some students went there 4 times. Since there is only so much you can do in this relatively small city, we guess the local Mc Donalds probably had a good week! A lot of the students bought a ukelele as a souvenir and unfortunately only a few knew how to play it well but heir repertoire was a bit limited ....

It was a tiring but very nice 10 days. The students behaved very well (only broke a peddle of a kayak), were enthusiastic and most of them had a good level of English which made it easy to communicate (although if there are 38 Danish people and only two Dutch it is easy to switch to Danish again).

We are still at Bongo Bongo at the moment, because the building of our huts is still behind schedule, meaning we don't have a house yet, as our earlier rental house is now vacated by a botanist of the arboretum. The new temporary sleeping room will the freshly painted storage room in our new kitchen.

In two weeks the first two volunteers will be arriving, so it is time again to hire some extra workers (again) so one of the volunteer huts will be finished as well. Now we have time to supervise them again, which usually means they work a bit faster.
So far, we have a finished kitchen, 1 almost finished hut (our house), 4 huts with finished concrete foundations but without roof and walls, a half finished equipment room for dive gear and an unpaved access road which is now in much better condition because endless loads of sand, gravel and stones have been added. At the busiest days, we had 25 construction workers walking around in the arboretum, but the last two weeks we had to scale down to about 12. Have a look at the MCP facebook page for pictures of the building.

It is definitely nice that we can start working with volunteers and finally go from the planning phase to the exploratory part of the research, starting with a follow up of the reef check course in a few days and hopefully some dives in Zamboanguita.

woensdag 31 december 2014

Strengthening MPA boundaries

Happy New Year everybody! We had a nice party at Bongo Bongo yesterday evening with a wonderful dinner and of course lechon (a whole roasted small pig and everything of it is consumed). Filipino's like the ears and tongue best, which suited the Europeans just fine, they could focus on the meat, accompanied by an intestine and liver sauce (or not) but also a wonderful ceviche (raw fish with a lot of lime) of marlin.
Filipinos have a nice habit of starting the New Year: anything that you have that has an engine needs to be started asap in the new year. The noise of the engine brings good fortune to the car/ motor bike. Since we can use some good luck, Dolf happily put the habit to the test. Let's wait and see. We certainly had a lot of exhaust fumes in our lungs as a start of the new year. Because of two days of continuous rain, the road to and from the arboretum has become very muddy at some parts. Yesterdays work consisted of strengthening the road by throwing large and small rocks, gravel and sand in some puddles. It only helped partially. The car still became stuck when we were heading to Bongo Bongo in our party clothing. Fortunately the workers just finished their day and they were able to pull the car out of the mud for us.

Hurray! We finally moved over to Zamboanguita a few days ago. In the morning, we do not hear pigs, goats, cars and church bells but birds and creaking bamboo (and the occasional motorbike). The arboretum is a wonderful place to live, in the middle of nature and a bit secluded from society.
Unfortunately we do have brownouts every day, meaning we have no elektricity for 15 minutes up to two hours. The internet is connected to the solar power grid of the owner of the arboretum, so funnily enough we do have internet during a brownout. The village of Zamboanguita itself is a 15 minute drive with the car, so it is for instance not possible anymore to walk over and do some shopping. As long as we do not have any more problems with our car and motorbike, this is no problem. In a few more months we have volunteers running all over the place and we do not have time to do our own shopping anyway. The constructors are (of course) behind schedule, but we have now 10 people walking around doing the building, so in two weeks we have at least an equipment room, kitchen and two huts, we hope.

One of the first official happenings in which we could participate as MCP in the municipality of Zamboanguita was helping setting the boundaries again for an already existing Marine Protected Area (MPA) in Dalakit. The MPA is enforced for quite some years, but the demarcation lines disappeared after several typhoons, which makes it hard to show where the no-fishing zone starts.
The coastal resource manager Tony managed to motivate a team of enthusiastic local fisherman to help with the work. They prepared 46 concrete blocks, used for sinkers and made a nice system for attaching rope to the styrofoam buoys.
The first part of the day was already a challenge: get the marine patrol boat into the water. With 10 strong man slowly pushing the boat forward from the sand in the water, we eventually managed to get the boat in the water. The concrete blocks of about 100 kgs each were moved with a digger as close as possible to the water. One block was tied to the boat and dragged in the water, until it was deep enough to float. Then the rope and buoy were attached and the block was dropped at the right spot. The boat could only take one block at the time, meaning that it had to go back and forth to the coast to pick up each new block.
Unfortunately the water was a bit too murky to check if the sinkers were dropped correctly while scuba diving, so that task still remains. We did have the opportunity to have a look at a 20 year old artificial reef which was full of fish and also included some hard and soft coral.

The strong points of this MPA is not the coral reef, because it hardly exists here, but the extended seagrass beds, the nearby river mouth and adjacent mangroves. There are a lot of young fish to be found here, who now get a chance to grow up relatively undisturbed. Most young fish spent part in their life hidden away under the mangroves or in or near river mouths were there are relatively few predators. But most important, the local people of this neighborhood thought it was really important to start this MPA, have paid the expenses out of their own barangay (neighborhood) budget and are willing to help freely with the implementation and enforcement.
Of course there is always way for improvement. The styrofoam buoys will deteriorate in several months and need to be replaced constantly, which means the residue will disappear in the sea. The blocks were dragged through the seagrass beds, instead of lifted over it because the digger could not drive in the water. On the other hand, with a very limited budget, it is still possible to work actively on marine conservation. We as MCP now have a role in helping develop a less destructive way to set up marker buoys and see if we can increase the budget, so that we can for instance use buoys of hard plastic that last several years.

After a hard day of work about 15 sinkers with buoys were dropped, so work continued the next day. The final result is an MPA of around 500 m in length and 300 m wide. The patrolling will be done by the locals themselves. We will be monitoring the site regularly to see if any changes occur. It is really nice to see that local people can get so enthusiastic in conserving their own environment!

dinsdag 30 december 2014

Filipino bureaucracy

Getting a drivers license can be a pain in the ass. We thought to make it easy for ourselves in the Netherlands: let's get an international drivers license. Done in 5 minutes. But not good enough for the Filipino ANWB. They want a translation of the embassy with official stamp. The nearest embassy is in Manila, so that's not gonna happen. Solution: you buy a temporary student license for a month and after that you do a theory exam and a practical exam. Nice detail: you only have to do the practical exam if you bring your own car, since do do not have cars of their own. You do have to pay for it though, even if you do not do the test. Sounds easy, just pay and you have your temporary license. But no, that is not how it works. After 5 hours which included 4 hours and 55 minutes of waiting and 4 minutes of walking to 6 different counters we walked out of the office again and we can repeat the whole exercise next month for the real license.
Of course if you now the right person in the office you can also pay thrice the amount of money and you just get your license, no exam, no drugs test, no medical test and hardly any waiting. Apparently we already now two of those persons through different friends...

Ok, you have a drivers license. The next step is a car. MCP has a second hand car since a couple of weeks. We have been driving around happily for 5 days and then the problems started. We have a month guarantee on the car, but unfortunately that does not guarantee that the mechanic will actually fix the problem. We are now in a state of mind that we wouldn't be surprised that the car will fall apart on day 31 (figuratively speaking of course), so we have to pay the mechanic for multiple problems.

Good mechanics are hard to find and even if you have one, the cheap Chinese parts they use to replace the old ones are not really helpful because they tend to malfunction after a couple of months/weeks/days according to your amount of luck. And that is were the real problem lies. Second hand cars come from Korea or Japan and are usually stripped to the bone in the Philippines and rebuild again with the earlier named cheap Chinese parts. From the outside everything looks fine and the first few days actually everything is fine. But a new car costs a fortune and will eventually break down at some point as well and the same song starts all over again. Who do people have cars here in the first place? From my mildly aggressive tone you have probably figured out by now that we some slight issues with our lovely car. Fortunately our motorbike is still working properly. 
I am happy to inform you that I wrote this particular part of the blog 1 week ago and the car is still functioning.

Not everything we do is frustrating though. We had a four day ReefCheck training Mid-December given by the developer of the training. We were incredibly lucky that this training was planned at the place were we are staying now and that we could join in. With a group of 20 participants including students from the Siliman University, different dive shops and Marine Conservation Philippines we followed an interesting program of lectures, diving and snorkeling.

With ReefCheck surveys you measure the abundance of human disturbances by looking at different indicator species of fish and invertebrates. You also look for abundance of coral and damage to coral trough for instance dynamite fishing, anchor damage or typhoons. In each area you want to research, you make two transects of 100m at a shallow depth and a bit deeper. Monitoring takes place as often as possible.
Since this research is simultaneously done in over 90 countries, Reef Check is a good tool to look at human disturbances worldwide. It is a relatively easy method to learn because it focuses only on a limited amount of species, which is also the disadvantage. Ecologically more interested species are left out, in favor of heavily over fished species or edible inverts. You do not very often see a Bumphead parrotfish or Humphead wrasse because they are well liked on the dinner table and grow quite big. Other common fish you find on the reef, like rabbitfish or angelfish are not part of the survey. Still, it can be quite difficult to recognize all the different kind of snappers and to not confuse them with other fish species!

MCP will be using Reef Check for part of the research and so it is useful for us to be qualified as Ecodivers from now on. We can use the Reef Check methodology and upload to data to the worldwide database. Our next step is to become official Reef Check trainers so that we can train our volunteers up to Ecodivers. For now, we will be using the extended documentation material and powerpoints to train our volunteers so they can help with the surveys. We will add some extra species because we are interested not only in human disturbances both also in the actual health of the reef ecosystem.

With the now existing Reef Check group of about 20 people we will be doing surveys in Dauin, Masaplod and Zamboanguita four times a year, starting already in January with a practice survey in Dauin. As MCP we will develop several more transects in Zamboanguita, both in- and outside Marine Protected Areas to see how bad the human disturbance is in our area and whether there are any differences inside and outside MPA's. If we find any human disturbances, we will try to find the cause and see if we can prevent or diminish it by looking for solutions with the local community, municipality and other involved parties.