Stephanie Arenas - Local Scholar - The Philippines
I discovered Coral Cay online about two years ago when I was looking for an internship over the summer. CCC head office informed me about their local scholarships. However I didn’t have the time to make the one month stay in Southern Leyte as it was a bit far from Manila and I had schoolwork to finish. Two years later though, after graduating from university, I was finally able to apply for the CCC dive scholarship. It took less than a month for me to be accepted into the program and fly to Leyte.
As soon as I got to the base camp I started sweating more than I had ever sweated in my entire life, and that’s saying a lot having grown up in the Philippines. I met some of the staff and volunteers and was given a tour of how things were run in the place. In a nutshell we had to get up by 6:30-7:00 every day, do our chores such as make breakfast/mop the floors/wash up, kit up, and then get our butts into the water for some world class diving. After that I met my first roommates, Lou and Nonny, who were super nice and accommodating. The room was simple with 3 bunk beds and view of the sea. We each had our own little electric fans and there was a little bathroom with no running water but there were two black buckets, one for salt water and one for fresh water which we had to fill up every now and then. At dinner I met the rest of staff and volunteers.
My first week was spent doing all my dive training up to advance open water certification. It was face paced and demanding trying to remember all the diving terms and basic scuba skills that were mentioned in the videos, theories and knowledge reviews. I also learned how to put together my dive kit, the most challenging task of which was hauling around the air tanks which, me being only 5’0 tall, were almost half my height. I remember during my first ever dive I had to walk down to the beach a few minutes away from the base. Imagine trudging through a narrow dirt footpath in a full wetsuit, carrying a tank on your back, a weight belt wrapped around your waist and fins in your hands in 38 degree Celsius weather. It was not a pretty sight but it made getting into the water so much more satisfying. Once under the sea all my worries went away and it was so amazing to just see all the fish and corals. The 30 minutes or so of my first dive went by far too fast in my opinion.
My introduction to the underwater world was a blur of colours and new sensations that kept me going through all the other dives and skills I had to do. Completing the tired diver tow with Maarten, one of the scuba instructors, was no easy feat. Another memorable dive was my first experience with a remora. I was doing peak performance buoyancy with Jesse, the other scuba instructor, when out of nowhere this very daring and curious fish started hovering around me and attached itself to my leg. I was freaking out of course and Jesse was just laughing, signalling it was ok. “You try doing buoyancy exercises with a remora sucking your leg” I wanted to retort. By the end of the week I had logged in all the necessary dives, passed all my knowledge reviews and was a certified advance open water diver. I thought that the hard part was over and done with but I was in for a surprise.
SDP training began with a simple enough lecture on corals. Acropora and non acropora. Check. Tabulate, branching, bottlebrush, etc... Check. Diploastrea heliopora, porites rus, goniopora/alveopora... not check. Learning the species names, in Latin to boot, definitely had me studying these hard corals well into the night. The other volunteers were really helpful and sweet about it though. They helped the SDP people with flashcards on land and pointys in the water. The same was done with inverts, algae and fish. The science officers, Jen and Luke, also gave us tips on how to remember the names of everything such as “you can’t put a durex on a murex”. It was a lot of work but also pretty cool to learn all the sea critters and corals. Diving suddenly became more interesting because I could identify what I saw in the water. Fish of the day nominations after dinner also started to make more sense and it was such a thrill to see rare creatures like Joey the resident hawksbill turtle.
Once I had passed all the exams and validations it was finally time to do surveys! I was a bit worried at first that I would mess up or forget something. Carrying reels, coral lines, salinity bottles, slates and fish buoys was a daunting task. Plus you had to remember to do everything assigned to you depending on whether you were the physical, coral, fish or inverts/algae person. In fact the first survey my SDP group attempted didn’t go so well. We ran out of time underwater before we completed the 50 metre line. But the next surveys went smoothly and we slowly got the hang of things. By the end of my stay I had completed more than a dozen MPA surveys and a few baseline surveys.
Life in Napantao was full of surprises everyday. From chicken eggs hatching to hauling the boat up to the beach during a storm, walking an hour and half to San Francisco town, getting attacked by coconut beetles on a nightly basis, running after the ducks, chilling out on the porch, trying to keep Choco Mucho consumption to a reasonable level, playing the Village and Shop, watching films like Blue Planet, having a bonfire down by the beach, watching the sunset, keeping an eye out for whale sharks, dolphins, pilot whales and shoals of fish, and people getting sunburnt. There were also local discos and karaoke on Saturday nights, manicures, massages, night dives, fending off nesting titan triggerfish, painting a wall in the sweltering summer heat, accidentally tasting tawas, chasing and being chased by spiders, and having a Napantao open day for the local kids.
I loved seeing another side of my country which I would have otherwise missed. To be immersed in the simplicity of life in those parts was a humbling experience. Things I took for granted at home like air conditioning, internet and running water were some comforts that I learned to do without. I appreciated them more when I got home but also liked the uncomplicatedness in the province. It was nice to not have the TV blasting and instead sit under a tree full of fireflies and look at the stars while listening to the waves lapping the sea wall.
Talking and hanging out with the volunteers was also another unique part of the expedition. People came from all walks of life and it was fascinating to learn British slang terms like “knackered” and “no worries”. Trying to understand the local dialect, Bisaya, was also fun. Hailing from Manila I am used to a mix of English and Filipino so Bisaya was quite different. Talking with the local staff was also nice. It was inspiring to see the dedication Dag (Community Liaison Officer) has towards his work in conservation and comforting to know that the Medical Officer was always there with a solution to any and every ailment. It was cool to just chill out and trade life stories. I loved how everyone was so comfortable and open with one another and that there was always something new to learn or simply just laugh about.
My 6 weeks with CCC went by in a happy blur and the term sweet exhaustion was never more apt. It was a demanding but thoroughly satisfying time. What started out as something of an interest has become a sort of life direction. It took a few weeks detached from city life and the hustle and bustle of the metro for me to gain some perspective and for that I am very grateful. I am currently in the process of looking for a job and I am happy to say there are a bunch of conservation NGOs in the Philippines who are fighting the good fight. I look forward to start working for one and continue what my experience with Coral Cay started, a love for marine conservation. I hope to get more people aware of the beauty that lies beneath the ocean waves and help out in their own little ways. I am glad to see how others are doing what they can to save the coral reefs and I hope that the message will reach the government and the people loud and clear, we need to act now and save what’s left. Also I am very excited to do more diving around my country and hopefully do more surveys with other NGOs and expeditions.
Thank you so much to the staff, international and local and all the volunteers and people of CCC who made my stay a truly amazing once in a lifetime eye opening opportunity.