Kirsty Brown - Expedition Volunteer - Cambodia & The Philippines
I came about doing a Coral Cay expedition after a past volunteer told my mum of his amazing experience in Fiji many years ago. I decided I wanted to take a gap year after school and I wanted to do something that would be worthwhile and useful for my chosen degree (geography) so I thought Coral Cay was perfect.
Many months later I arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, extremely nervous and overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of Asia. However, as soon as I arrived on the picturesque island of Koh Rong and immediately felt more at ease! At first everything was extremely daunting especially as it was the most basic and remote existence I had ever known, no internet, random phone signal, no hot water, no flushing loos and random amounts of electricity in the evening. Initially, I never thought I would be able to cope without any mod cons yet by the end of my time on Koh Rong I had learnt that this was the beauty of the island and what made it so special.
I had never dived before Cambodia and was very nervous, however, due to the astonishing patience of my dive instructor Jess (who held my hand for nearly all my dives in my first week!) I eventually became more comfortable underwater. Soon I became so excited by everything I saw that I forgot my initial fears. After completing the science training we got really stuck into surveying, this was especially exciting as we were diving sites that had never been dived before by anyone. Each survey we did was different, it was so rewarding and stimulating so my excitement never wavered!
Other than diving I have so many other memories from the island; establishing English lessons for the local children every Sunday, beach cleans where the local children ran over to help us (it felt like they were beginning to understand the importance of our work), our trip back to the mainland for one weekend, extravagant fireworks displays from the owners of the island, stormy nights living on the pier and party nights at the infamous “Monkeys”. When I left the island and embarked on the boat journey back to the mainland I realised what a fantastic experience my five weeks on Koh Rong had been, I was genuinely so sad to be leaving such an amazing place, with amazing people and doing an amazing thing.
I arrived in the Philippines after six weeks of travelling with a friend, I was so excited to start what I knew would be another amazing five weeks. I met another girl in Manila who was starting on the Philippines project at the same time as me, we made the trip down to the base together and after a long three day journey from Phuket, Thailand, I was so relieved to have finally arrived. My check dive on my first morning on site was absolutely incredible, I could not believe the huge amount of biodiversity on our house reef, there was so much to see and not enough time to look at it all.
The science training took a little longer to complete in the Philippines but I loved knowing what I was looking at underwater, it made every dive so much more enjoyable. The vast knowledge of the science staff taught me so much; they opened my eyes to so many things and I left feeling so much more aware of what was in our oceans. We were surveying down at a site called “Sonok” for the whole time that I was there, however I still got excited every time we dropped down to complete a new transect.
Recreational diving on a Saturday gave us the one chance a week to dive the amazing “South Wall” which was completely out of this world. This was by far my favourite dive site that we went to due an incomprehensible amount of fish. However, every single dive I would surface excited about something that I had seen-“Joey” the turtle, nudibranchs, mimic octopus, giant titan triggerfish, juvenile emperor angelfish, cuttlefish, midnight cowries, and so much more (I could write at least an entire page listing everything that I saw). It was easy to become complacent about what we were seeing everyday and although I never saw a whale shark I am still so appreciative of how lucky I was to see everything else.
We spent a lot of time helping the local village, with beach cleans, painting Napantao’s basketball court wall and having an open day for the local school. These made us all feel that we were really creating a long term legacy within the community so that they would be able to continue conserving the site once Coral Cay had left, the community work was invaluable. I also have so many memories of the base, playing “the village” at night, going to the Karaoke, going to local fiesta discos, watching documentaries about fishing and the environment and so much more.
Overall, my time in both Cambodia and the Philippines was unforgettable; both expeditions were extremely different but memorable in their own ways therefore making it the most incredible time of my life. The staff in Cambodia and the Philippines were phenomenal; they were dedicated, enthusiastic and supportive throughout my whole time on site. Furthermore, the team in London prior to my trip had endless patience regarding all my concerns. At the beginning of my ten weeks with Coral Cay I genuinely knew nothing about diving or the oceans. I never thought I would learn as much about the oceans, environment, conservation, diving, people and culture. The excitement of diving with the reward of surveying has made me passionate about the oceans. I will definitely be pursuing conservation further at university and in my career. I made so many friends who were so different yet similar in our cause who I will keep in touch with for years to come.
I wish I could express more how much I loved every minute of my time on both projects. I cannot explain how much the experience exceeded my expectations in so many ways, it was by far the best thing that I did on my gap year.