Learn to scuba dive free, receive a complimentary education in tropical marine biology, and get to help save the threatened coral reefs of Southeast Asia and Central America at the same time?
If that strikes you as an attractive prospect, contact either Coral Cay Conservation or Operation Wallacea. Both organizations are run out of Britain, and both require volunteer divers to help survey coral reefs (and rain forests) with a view to establishing marine sanctuaries or desperately needed conservation-management plans.
CCC began its reef-survey programs in the Central American nation of Belize. The barrier reef off Belize is to the Western Hemisphere what Australia’s great barrier reef is to the East: the biggest and the best.
CCC continues to be active in Belize, but has also gone on to develop similar programs in the beleaguered coral gardens that lie off the Philippines islands of Negros and Palawan. This year it has also started work in the Bay Islands of Honduras.
Cay (pronounced key as in Florida Keys) comes from the Spanish cayo, meaning island. Operation Wallacea takes its name from the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace who almost pipped Charles Darwin to the theory-of-evolution post with his work on island endemism.
Wallace did his best work in Indonesia, and that’s where Operation Wallacea works too — specifically, off the southeast coast of Sulawesi in the largely unexplored reefs of the Tukangbesi Archipelago.
This is frontier country. Very few tourists get anywhere near Tukangbesi, which, thanks to Operation Wallacea’s work, has been designated a 200,000-hectare marine reserve. Among the living treasures of Tukangbesi are manta rays, dugongs, sea turtles and sperm whales. Disturbingly absent are many shark species, due to overfishing for the East Asian soup trade.
Be warned: On both CCC and Operation Wallacea projects, you must pay for your air fare. You must also pay a contribution to whichever program you join. This covers in-country transport, food, diving gear, accommodation and all those motorboats you get to zoom around in. Costs vary, depending on the number of weeks you participate. The longer you stay, the cheaper it gets.
Experienced divers interested in longterm involvement can apply for positions as team leaders. The same goes for people with other needed skills such as medicine or photography.
So how does it work? What actually do you do?
In the case of CCC, if you can’t dive, you turn up a week before the rest of the team and receive training for PADI scuba certification. Learning scuba in gin-clear tropical waters with clownfish and coral for company is a distinct improvement on learning to dive in your local antiseptic swimming pool with its less-than-thrilling views of blue walls and floor.
If you have a diving license, and haven’t forgotten what to do with your “octopus” or how to “buddy breathe” in an emergency, then you just turn up at the local airport at the appointed time. You are met. You are transported to the site. The adventure begins.
No, not quite true. The transport to the site is often an adventure in itself, involving anything from speeding nocturnal Philippine jeepneys swerving past sleep-befuddled water buffalo to chatting with Bugis sea cucumber fishermen while waiting for delayed Indonesian ferries suffering from jam karat (rubber time).
Upon arrival, it is training time. Training involves familiarization with the particular goals of the project. There are a lot of projects. One, for example, monitors the successful species colonization of an artificial reef constructed to counteract the hideous destruction wrought by brainless dynamite fishermen.
Another is a coral species count that involves swimming transects checking what’s what and where. A third involves constructing offshore fish-attraction devices to bring pelagic species to the local fishermen, thereby relieving pressures on over-exploited reef-fish communities.
One is trained in rapid reef assessment techniques, including familiarization with the local coral and fish species which are to be surveyed. Participants also learn about the threats to coral reefs, such as cyanide fishing, where cyanide is sprayed at large fish like humphead wrasse for the “live fish” restaurant market. The poison stuns the fish, but kills the coral. Even in the most remote field programs volunteers will see such destructive fishing practices.
After training is complete, there’s a lot of diving or slogging through rain forests counting birds or macaques, tropical sunsets, beach barbecues and fireflies in the forests. You will not be bored.
Accommodation varies from tents through swanky lodges to live-aboard dive vessels. The most exotic lodgings are in a Bajau sea-gypsy village perched on stilts above the reef flats several hundred meters from the shore. The houses are linked by wonky little bamboo bridges or dugout canoes.
One final word of warning. Never, ever, dive on the day you fly back home. All those bubbles of hydrogen that accumulate under pressure in your blood while underwater can give you the bends in the pressurized atmosphere of an airplane. The consequences can be appalling.
But that’s another column.