Friday, August 30, 2013

Found a Seahorse!

The island is great and I'm having an awesome time. There are around 30 volunteers + staff, with many of the volunteers still taking dive courses to learn more skills. That leaves about 10 of us who are qualified and certified to do dive surveys (we try to get 4 per day, but due to rain we often manage only 1-2). We set out two 50 meter lines that are 5 meters apart, and four people survey around them. Two people survey between the lines (each person goes out 2.5 meters toward the center) and the other two people go 2.5 meters away from the survey area. In total, we survey 500 m² each time we go out. If we find one seahorse in that entire area, it's a good day.
Hauling tanks
Lying transects in the sand (all the seagrass has been trawled out by fishing boats)
Pregnant male seahorse! You can see the red pouch showing where the eggs are held.
According to some divers who have been around Cambodia for at least a decade, you used to find 30 or more seahorses per dive.  As of five or six years ago, you could find easily 6-10 seahorses of many different species. Now, we're lucky to find one or two on a dive. The seahorses are caught and sold to the Chinese medicine market (over 100 million are used each year at minimum, and the real number is probably much higher) and for the aquarium trade. MCC has a partner organization in England that successfully breeds seahorses in captivity, which appears to be the only solution to fulfilling international demand. However, the marine protected area recently established in Cambodia may help seahorses recover locally, so MCC is studying the seahorse population to see how it recovers now that trawling and international boats have been outlawed.  

I used my dive knife probably 2 times before I got to Cambodia, but now I use it almost every dive to cut fishing line. Sad...
Sandy substrate is really common because boats have torn up the seagrass and corals
Fish cages
Abandoned fishing line can kill the most innocent sea creatures :(
Moving beyond the politics, the diving itself has been really enjoyable. I missed scientific diving, and it's fun to have lots of equipment and underwater slates and dive with a purpose. The group is from all over Europe and America and ages range from 17-35. It's been a wonderful learning experience thus far.


Giant clams

Beautiful sunsets on the island

Our captain doesn't like to get wet on the trip to the boat

Friday, August 16, 2013

Cambodia pt 2: Tropical Islands, Seahorses, and Bucket Showers

Hello! Sorry for the very delayed updates (again). There have been some exciting changes in my travel plans in the last few weeks, and I suddenly found myself on an isolated island in Cambodia doing some marine conservation work and research. Funny how that just happens...
I heard about Marine Conservation Cambodia from one of my fellow divemasters in Khao Lak, and was naturally curious about their seahorse work and experience with establishing marine protected areas in southern Cambodia. I didn't expect to actually end up here 4 months later, but lo and behold! To Cambodia I went, and now I'm on the island eating Khymer food and taking bucket showers.
Mai Pei, village 23, full of fishing families

Early morning repairing nets
dogs and puppies EVERYWHERE
yeah that's a dead gecko
MCC has been around for 5 years and works with the Cambodian government to establish best fishing practices around Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem. MCC also studies seahorses and attempts to breed them - there is a male about to give birth at the moment, but sadly he's away in the Kep laboratory (on the mainland) where the facilities can support more intensive science.

Uly and I are currently stationed on Koh Rong Samloem, the less touristy and populous of the two islands, helping with dive surveys to document reef health and search for seahorses. We're staying in a very small village called Mai Pei, which means "23" as this is the 23rd village on the island. It's quite small - maybe 150 people live there? - and they have electricity from 6pm-11pm, one source of running water, and lots of decrepit wooden bungalows.  We are staying in one such bungalow but it's clean inside and there is mosquito netting, so it's not so bad; the only bummer is that there are no fans, since electricity comes from a generator and only runs a few hours a day.
This cat thinks it's a dog and I LOVE IT! It sat on me for 2 hours sighing and snuggling. The dog was confused.
There are about 20 volunteers at MCC and 4 staff members. The staff seem like volunteers who have been around the longest and they organize the dives and beach cleanups; there is one dive instructor who can teach open water and advanced dive courses. Many of the volunteers came to MCC through Projects Abroad, which charges exorbitant amounts of money to place people in "volunteer" projects around the world - we're talking $2,000-3,000 for a 2-week program. Most of the Projects Abroad kids are taking time off before or after college, and many learn to dive while at Marine Conservation Cambodia, then stay for a 2-3 week dive volunteer experience.

It's also possible to come to MCC independently (like Uly and me) where you only pay for food and lodging, and basically dive as much as you want in a volunteer capacity. Maybe 1/3 of the people here have come independently, and 2/3 come through Projects Abroad. That doesn't seem to affect anyone's social interactions, which is great! It's an incredibly open and welcoming group of people and I think we are going to have a wonderful time.
Audrey holding our pet kitten
Boat back to the mainland to get internet (for this blog post!)
The diving is much better than I expected; we both heard rumors of terrible visibility, zero fish, and unsafe boats. The reality is quite nearly the opposite! Visibility is worse than in Khao Lak because it's now the rainy season, but it's not much worse than Koh Tao (7-15 feet visibility). At some sites, the corals are healthier and more varied than in Thailand. We have our own dive equipment but the boats and tanks are great, and the MCC gear is well maintained for the volunteers. The boat captains understand English and overall, it's been a very positive dive experience thus far! Granted, we've only been here for 3 days of diving so that may change as we see more sites that are damaged from overfishing...
the longtail boat for diving
not sure what this is! COOL and pretty though!
very healthy barrel sponges at some of the sites
batfish & an Uly
I haven't been around long enough to judge the efficacy of the monitoring dives and projects, so I'll have many more opinions after another week or so. We're planning to stay in Cambodia until the end of September, when I'm planning to fly to Komodo, Indonesia to meet up with my friend Krista and do some diving. We'll then go to the Philippines to see my friend Lara and another 7 people who are all flying out for a crazy 2 week adventure, and Krista and I are set to dive in Palawan and Boracay, and probably Manila as well. At the end of October, we'll hopefully stop through Hong Kong to see Warner, and then it's HOME! Back to AMERICA!! Only 2.5 more months out here. How crazy...

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Koh Tao & Finally Diving Again!

After spending over 6 months in Thailand (on and off over the last 9+ months), I realized that I've only been diving in Khao Lak, where I was a divemaster. Thailand has many other dive spots, the most famous of which is Koh Tao - it's located in the Gulf of Thailand and certifies the second highest number of people in the world after Cairns, Australia (home of the Great Barrier Reef).  Koh Tao is known for having whale sharks and lots of parties - and in our week here, we've seen neither! The former is a disappointment - I'd love to see a whale shark - but we consciously arrived during a low party time to avoid an island full of gap-year kids going crazy. It's actually a beautiful island and the diving has been quite fun. Visibility has been fairly bad and there is a much lower fish diversity here, but we saw some cool stuff!
idyllic island life
sunset! Disclaimer - this is not where I'm staying, but it WAS gorgeous!
Banded boxer shrimp
Corals overgrowing a net - beautiful
 One of my favorite sites was a wreck dive of a US navy ship, intentionally sunk in 2010 to create a reef and dive site. There wasn't much growing on it, but the ship was still almost fully intact and beautiful.
Wreck dive
Big gun

We also went to Sail Rock, Chumphon Pinacle twice, and some other nice sites. It was great to get back in the water - and best of all, as divemasters we were free to go off on our own and have super long, super flexible dive plans!

Chimney at Sail Rock
White eyed moray out swimming
all the fish!
very healthy corals
mystery pipefish - no one could ID it, since none of the instructors had seen it before... still thinking of a good name so I can live on in scientific history as its discoverer.
After this diving, Uly and I are probably heading to Cambodia to do some volunteer diving with a seahorse conservation group. Still not certain about this, so I'll update when we know!