We all saw what an impact David Attenborough’s recent series of Blue Planet had to promote action on plastic waste and clean up our oceans. The Blue Planet team travelled to French Polynesia, and filmed coral reefs at their best. Well did you know… coral reefs have the highest biodiversity of any ecosystem on the planet—even more than a tropical rainforest! Occupying less than 1% of the ocean floor, coral reefs home more than 25% of marine life.
The Philippines, has more than 7,000 islands and surrounds about 26,000 square kilometres of coral reef! Sadly, South East Asia’s coral reefs are the most threatened in the world. 30% of the Philippine’s coral reefs are dead while 39% are dying. In April I rocked up in Port Barton on Palawan Island (Philippines) to meet Atelier Aquatic and volunteer across their many projects. Atelier Aquatic are a community interest company; they use creativity to engage communities in marine conservation. I spent a month working alongside them to make positive change at the local scale here in Port Barton.
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has. - Margaret Mead
The community of Port Barton is quite small, where everybody seems to know each other by name and face (and complete life history!). Families that have lived here for generations speak of a time where their neighbours were monkeys swinging in the trees. Looking back, they remember picking food from the jungle and fish for dinner was caught close by. Today fishing has to be more specialised as the waters have become depleted of fish stocks. Many fish and sea creatures have become endangered, which has a knock on effect to the whole reef system. Catching a critically endangered fish is a status symbol in some social circles whereas in others it is complete blasphemy! Spear fishing, a technique established and passed down through family generations, is now banned.
Atelier have been teaming up with the local boatsmen who take groups on Island tours. There is a steady stream of tourism to Port Barton; most tourists spend their days island hopping, snorkelling or scuba diving. Anchors thrown down from these boats has been seen to smash reefs like an atomic bomb. In effect obliterating your underwater passion and the tourism industry, along with a bustling home for many. Atelier have been encouraging boatsmen to stop dropping anchors and also to promote better snorkelling practise. I created booklets about the local reefs and what you can spot in each area. Atelier hope that by spreading this knowledge and engaging the community in their rich culture, levels of respect and positive attitudes towards conservation will increase.
There are two species of turtle that live in this area alone, they are now critically endangered. During the school holidays we spent a few days with some budding artists, local schoolchildren. We talked about the reefs – mainly about the local turtle population and drew lots of turtles until we committed to a giant mural on the library wall. The final painting was an informative, masterpiece that promoted an appreciation and knowhow of how to protect these peaceful reptiles. The mural is one of many of Atelier’s artworks dotted across the town.
Atelier have an ongoing project with plastic waste, by building with plastic bricks. It’s a visual stimulus to remind people of the damaging effects of plastic waste. One structure has been built at the local primary school - a cleaning station. Over the month I spotted more and more people pushing little bits of plastic into 2L pop bottles! Many businesses are offering free water refills across the town, but still the problem continues as the mountain of disposable water bottles keeps building up. We discussed ways to promote tourists to switch to using these water stations… to be continued.
Before I arrived, Atelier had worked with a local ‘stone mason’ who created a giant octopus sculpture. One day, we spent a day dragging this beast by boat, on a raft, across miles of ocean to a remote reef – luckily the waters are extremely calm at this time of year but it still took hours! The boat stopped at a popular diving spot. Once in situ, the creature was lowered down onto the ocean bed. From this we tied octopus mooring buoys (upcycled plastic bottles), which boatsmen can use these instead of dropping an anchor. Watching the whole process was quite an unbelievable community effort - a high standard of team work that you couldn’t manifest in the UK, even after months of team building exercises! The Octopus is one of three underwater sculptures funded by Sculpt the Future. It will become an artificial reef. Artificial reefs are another approach to conservation.
Alongside these creative interventions, Atelier are collecting surveys of the reefs. This supports the research carried out globally by Green Fins. The surveys monitor the effects of tourism, the aquarium trade and different fishing industries by gathering numbers of indicator species in each location. Green Fins are aiming to gather as much information as possible to understand how healthy our coral reefs are. Atelier hope that with this proof they’ll be able to promote to local government the implementation of Marine Protected Areas are.
My new year’s resolution was to escape the human world and to learn more about animals and plant species. Over the month it was an absolute delight to see dolphins, turtles, sea slugs, lion fish, cuttle fish and some mesmerising soft corals in such diversity. Learning about coral reefs and the different creatures that make it their home was truly fascinating. Have you heard about flatworm’s penis fencing battles?! We need not go to space to look for new life - it truly is another world underwater. Now we just need to work to preserve the life that surrounds.