Virgin Snorkelling Experience

Day 3.

Back in PINR, we were welcomed by the Bingag Marine Sanctuary or Marine Protected Area (MPA) management team, who began their presentation with a prayer. I was immensely moved by the strong and deep respect they had for nature, the provider for their peoples. It heavily mirrored my own unwavering reverence of Mother Nature, so I felt myself warming up the people and their culture.

As half of the group peeled off to swim in the waters of the Bingag MPA for their marine surveys, the rest of us strolled along tree-lined boulevards, a stone’s throw from the sparkling sea, to the Cambagat cave in Dauis. As we waded into the clear, cool waters in the bat cave, I found that Bachelor of Environmental Studies (BES) students could improve their etiquette for they were too loud, which will almost definitely disturb the bats.

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Entrance of Cambagat cave, Dauis, Bohol, Philippines

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Cambagat cave, Dauis, Bohol, Philippines

Under the cloudless skies, we strode on foot along a tiny road, winding past a small village and passing by charming, beautifully preserved statues and sculptures of a guitar and a boot plant pot. The road widens up to a little town with tourist shops selling souvenirs, at which my friends bought printed t-shirts of the Philippine’s famous tarsiers. Mobile stalls crowd the entrance of the Hinagdanan cave, offering thirst quenching mango milk smoothies to my friends. In contrast to the tiny Cambagat cave, the stalactite- and stalagmite-decorated Hinagdanan cave full with glossy swiftlets was larger and more equipped to handle tourists by ensuring that only small groups enter at any one time. The cave was significantly hollowed out, illuminated mainly by two sinkholes through which swiftlets fly in and out constantly. The other batch of us swam in its cool waters after their marine work, but being comfortably dry and carrying too much precious gear, I decided to pass the opportunity.

Once outside the cave, we broke up into teams to interview the various groups of people who specially came down for us. As I was helping Winnie’s group research on governance and corruption, the questions we asked we asked were along the lines of understanding the structure of the MPA management, the funding sources and recipients, as well as how well-designed the MPA was. We managed to speak with Ms Melot, an executive director of the Bohol Provincial Tourism Council, and Mr Clemencito Ingking (nicknamed Em-Em, which he cheekily joked being Eminem), a tourism driver and ex-fisherman separately, and we gleaned several useful information for Winnie’s project. Ms Reizl P. Jose, which was another TA from the Philippines, helped with the translation. Unfortunately, by the off-chance any of my juniors are reading this, sharing the information might jeopardise their experience of formulating their interview questions and honing such techniques.

However, I am keen to share several points which interested me significantly. Previously a fisher folk who has witnessed the decline in fish stocks before the MPA was introduced, and a subsequent increase after the MPA establishment, he believed that “without the MPA, the fish stock would be gone.” Em-Em also remarked that he was satisfied with the MPA’s establishment and management, and he seemed pretty contented with the MPA personally. I believe this could have been because as a tourist driver now, he is earning more than he did as a fisher folk, therefore he is now reaping the benefits of the MPA establishment.

Also, there were a few points in the information we obtained from several sources that provided interesting insights. During the presentation by the MPA management staff, it was made known to us that the fisherfolk proposed it as a bottom up approach because of the declining fish stock. However, Em-Em provided that only a group of fisher folk proposed and supported it then. Thus, it was not representative. As not all the fisher folk wanted the MPA to be established back then, there was unhappiness among the fisher folk community.

Aside, according to Ms Melot, the revenue from ticket sales and equipment rental was returned to the people, so that people could also benefit from it. Yet, based on Em-Em and Reizl’s account, they were not directly given any money. The monies were directed to a community fund to organize community events. What could have been done with the funds such that the locals still find themselves benefiting from the MPA while putting the money to better use? Perhaps the next batch of juniors can look into that as a useful deliverable.

The interview session with Em-Em went stale and concluded when Em-Em, who appeared evasive and eager to conclude the discussion, asked, “are we done?” However, my mind was still curious about one specific point brought up during the interviews – the sea gypsies, or Bajau, were threats to the MPA management. The Bajau were characterised as uneducated indigenous peoples who continue to illegally fish in the now protected waters, despite efforts to explain to them why they should not fish within the MPA. “They are not educated, so when we talk to them they do not understand, and it is difficult to instil in them that their practice is not good,” Reizl shared. Apparent in both interviewees and even Reizl is the social construction of Bajau as a problem instead of seeing them as people going on about their lives as per usual since they have traditionally free-dived and speared fish for subsistence. I was only thinking if it was worth looking into whether the perception of Bajau as a threat or criminals will side-line their interest. Dr Coleman shared that as they are not from Bohol, they are truly outsiders and that makes it part of the problem.

Lastly, there seemed to be an enforcement gap in the MPA management. Even with the appointment of fish wardens to patrol the waters every night, it is hard to detect illegal activities especially by the Bajau who are skilled free divers. Furthermore, although they detected the occurrence of Bajau fishing within the MPA several times, they do not have the authority to chase and arrest them. This power lies with the local police team, and by the time they are mobilised, the Bajau are long gone. This time lag, i.e., from detection to reporting to dispatching, severely undermines enforcement efforts. The police team is also understaffed because it is expensive to pursue the required degree in criminology. Therefore, the municipality can either provide subsidised education to increase manpower in the police task force, or set up police officers nearer to the MPA. It is even possible to transfer the authority to chase and detain to the police station to the wardens.

Despite what Dr Corazon B. Batoy said at the end of the day, that we did not overwhelm the interviewees and that we had the questions ready on hand, I think there is great room for improvement. Instead of worrying about pauses after the question has been delivered, we should minimise pauses between our questions after the interviewee has clearly finished answering the previous question. Follow up questions should try to be in the same realm or topic instead of jumping from one to another. If there was a follow-up question forgotten, it is wiser to get back to it after the topic underway is already fully discussed.

After a sumptuous buffet lunch at PINR, the groups switched activities and it was my turn to explore the underwater wonderland. As we set sail on the shallow blue-green waters, we could effortlessly spot blue stars (Linckia laevigata) dotting the lush reef systems. I was determined to make my virgin snorkelling experience nothing short of amazing, but a butt and upper thigh cramp from a subpar giant stride entry left me floundering in the water and missing out the first invertebrate survey inside the MPA. My fellow partners Jacqueline and Abel brought be back to the ladder on the side of the boat and the locals helped me up. Nadia kindly helped me stretch and ease the pain, for she is a very experienced diver. I received loads of assistance and concern, which really touched me deeply.

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I re-entered the waters without retrying the giant stride entry, but using the ladder once more. I still got to snorkel the vibrant reefs after re-joining my teammates. Herded by the currents from my flapping fins, tiny schools of fishes swam beneath me for quite some distance, darting around their shoal mates. I also spotted a few pipefishes (family Syngnathidae) which Jacqueline Chua initially thought were seahorses, as well as one of many crown-of-thorns (Acanthaster planci). I found it hard to observe anything initially, due to the bobbing from the waves, but I slowly adjusted and could see a lot more. I was particularly pleased to have spotted a crown-of-thorns and to have been able to show them to Dr Coleman and Jacqueline, both of which are experienced divers. As corallivores, higher numbers of crown-of-thorns (based on combined data) may indicate poorer reef quality outside the MPA because the corals are under high predatory pressure. The same goes for the numerous sea urchins outside the MPA, which suggest higher algal cover on those reefs, in turn implying reduced photosynthesis by corals beneath. There were also giant clams (Tridacna gigas), sea cucumbers (class Holothuroidea) amongst the humongous yet fragile corals teeming with life. On the way back to shallower waters, I also found a small jellyfish Dr Coleman helped to photograph with her waterproof camera.

Despite my desperate search in ICM for waterproofing housing for my DSLR or minimally my phone, I couldn’t find any. Hence, I was so upset with missing out all the potentially good shots. Nevertheless, I was still upbeat as I will surely have more snorkelling experiences in the future, since the virgin experience was so AMAZING!

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