Corals and Seagrass and Mangroves, oh my!

The past week has been fulfilling marine biologist dreams of mine in a domino-like fashion. In just a few days we’ve assessed coral, seagrass, and mangrove habitats; three of the most economically valuable and biodiversity rich coastal environments… in one of the most beautiful places in the world!

We started off the week with one of my favorite water activities: snorkeling! In teams of five, Coastal Resource Trainees conducted coral reef assessments using a point-intercept method. The purpose of these assessments is to get a basic understanding of the health of a reef by counting live and dead corals, the presence of algae, and other organisms or materials found on the ground. We started by pulling a transect tape 50m across a randomly chosen section of reef and tied it down to a non-living surface at either end. Using the point-intercept method, we chose an interval length (every 25cm, 50cm, 1m, 5m… depending how precise you want your data to be) and marked what was directly beneath the tape at every interval. As a group we decided on 1m intervals, so we snorkeled along the transect line and took turns diving down at 1m, 2m, 3m,… until we reached 50m; recording what we saw under each meter mark as we went.

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Example of a point-intercept tape starting point. We took data of what was below each 1m interval.

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Bright and early in the morning, heading out for our seagrass surveys!

It sounds complicated but essentially we’re snorkeling along a line and inspecting a coral reef! Also, to communicate easier in the water we predetermined hand signals to mean different findings, for example: if a point had hard coral under it, we would make a fist at our recorder; if we saw a soft coral we would wiggle our fingers in an upside cup shape. It was a lot of fun to swim, snorkel, and play above a beautiful coral reef as part of my job. It’s something I dreamed about doing ever since my Coral Reef Ecology class in college, but never quite imagined I would actually do… I most definitely spend time looking around at my life here and silently shake my head in amazement!

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Bennett diving down to check what’s below a tape mark.

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Jake showing The Fist, indicating the presence of hard coral (this is what we want to see!)

The following day our group got in the water again to take a seagrass survey. Seagrass is an often underappreciated marine resource; it’s actually a flowering plant, just like a tulip or a rose, and is ideally found in large patches, or beds, just like lawn grass. It is, perhaps, not as majestic as coral reefs and mangrove sites, and is often mistaken for seaweed by tourists or anyone not familiarized with marine ecosystems. But seagrass is important to coastal waters: it stabilizes land by trapping sediment within its roots and rhizomes, helps prevent erosion, and acts as a nursery habitat for juvenile fish to grow in safely before they go off to the big open ocean. For our seagrass surveys, we followed a different 50m transect method, one that using quadrats; a 1m x 1m square (sizes vary) from which we will collect data points at a chosen interval (every 5m). For seagrasses, we determine the species present, and how much of our square is covered with seagrass as an indicator for how healthy the habitat is. Again, I got to dawn my snorkel and examine fascinating marine habitat for my job! Seagrass might not sound thrilling, but it is full of fascinating life forms; I spotted an eel, a porcupine fish, and urchins while surveying. Seagrass is also a favorite food of dugongs (the Pacific version of a manatee) and sea turtles, so don’t be scared to explore a seagrass bed if you ever get the chance!

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Checking out seagrass… you can see our quadrat lying in the water at it’s mark

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Healthy, dense seagrass, yay!

On our third outing this week, we ventured to a market that had everything from shoes, clothes and toys to fresh produce, meats, and fish. Our assignment was to go around the market and use our amateur Tagalog to identify what fish species were for sale and haggle for some fish to cook that night. I really enjoyed talking to the vendors: in my photo below is Liza, a business graduate who gets her fish from a buyer in a nearby coastal town. She was extremely knowledgeable about the fish she had available and was likewise curious about me and what I was doing in the Philippines. We enjoyed a friendly exchange in Taglish (Tagalog-English).

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That evening, we made delicious fish tacos with our language and technical facilitators followed by a bonfire on the beach surrounded by stars a lightning storm in the distance. I might’ve given myself a pinch or two then, as well…

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Giant tuna heads… the big one in the back was bigger than a basketball

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Fresh caught fish in the market

It was a great week and it ended on a high with more technical training surrounding mangrove habitats. Like seagrass and corals, mangroves are important coastal environments in acting as fish nurseries, trapping sediment to protect from coastal erosion and storm surges, and providing economic livelihood to local communities (the wood is used from lumber, fruit can make oil, fishing grounds, etc.). We visited a mangrove nursery where they were growing different species from seed into saplings and planting them in areas where mangroves had been depleted or were at risk. Each volunteer took a couple of saplings and we trekked into the mangrove forest to plant them. After our planting session we took a tour around the sanctuary to learn how to identify different species of mangroves. All of this was a precursor to the last technical activity of the week: a mangrove assessment!

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Learning about the mangrove tree’s aerial root system

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Trekking through mangrove forest

From past experience working in mangroves, I find that mangrove surveys can be some of the most physically tasking. Unlike seagrass and coral, mangrove habitats are more swamp-like, and depending on the tide you could be surveying in waters that are inches deep or waist deep. Mangroves are also known to be quite buggy and hot in the middle of the day, but our survey site ended up being rather beautiful and bug free! The mangrove assessment also involves a transect but a longer one, ~100-200m, and the quadrats are 10m x 10m as the survey involves measuring large trees. There’s a more elaborate set-up process for the mangrove assessment, so I’ll stop with the detail there and just share a few more photos. It was quite a successful week of technical training, sharing skills and ideas among our group, and exploring the beautiful habitats of the coastal marine resources here in the Philippines!

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Mangrove seedlings!

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Now I bet you’re wondering… what do we Coastal Resources Volunteers actually do with all this information? Well, we take this collected data along with data from interviews with local community members (our assignment for this week) to put together a participatory coastal resource assessment (PCRA) to present to the community (ideally, when we are at our independent sites, we will be carrying out these surveys with locals—fishermen, mothers, students, whomever!—so that they can learn how to do them without the aid of a volunteer). And what the PCRA will do is give a summary of the information we collected about the community and its coastal resources. This can include anything from what areas are being overfished, to the discovery of a secret, pristine reef, or learning that the community needs a better solid waste management program. From this, we can work with our communities to determine what they need and want to change, adapt, or grow on, and the facilitation of those needs becomes our project. We are here to make ourselves obsolete, to share knowledge and skills, and to provide a community that wanted a volunteer (hopefully) with a new friend and resource for a couple years. So when I say I don’t know what I’m doing here quite yet… it’s the truth! The work will depend on the needs of the community and the environment I am placed in; an exciting challenge!

Hopefully, this gives people a better idea of what I’m doing here. Bear in mind, these assessments are really just a small, small part of a bigger picture; most of my time won’t actually be spent frolicking in the surf and chasing sea turtles. The majority of our jobs (>90%) is working out of the water and with the community members, which I am very much looking forward to doing. In just three weeks, I’ll get my site placement, and less than a month later I’ll be on my way as an independent Peace Corps Volunteer! And in case you thought this was all too serious and I wasn’t having any fun, know that I celebrated the end of the week (and the help of a fantastic resource volunteer from last year) by doing traditional Filipino Videoke with my fellow volunteers. My first time singing anything karaoke-like and I was quite the fan… though I can’t speak for my listeners!

Hope this wasn’t too unbearably science-y for people… Until next time!

S

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3 responses to “Corals and Seagrass and Mangroves, oh my!

  1. Got a super great education today! When you go out on your assignment do you go alone to a site or in pairs or something? Where do you live when you get there? You’re doing a great job of explaining not only what you are doing but the Peace Corps mission. Your fan, Auntie Jill

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    • Thanks for the feedback, Auntie Jill! Often people have ‘site mates’ where a volunteer is within an hour or two away (sometimes closer, but sometimes much, much further). There could be part of the Coastal Resource Management program like me, or with Education or the Children, Youth, and Family sector… in which case there is a lot of room to collaborate projects! We are assigned a host family with whom we have to live with for the first 3 months at site, some people choose to live with them the whole two years, others move out to live on their own… But it depends what is available in the community!

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