Pamilacan and the Pawikan

What are these nonsense sounding words?

Pamilacan is the name of a beautiful island on the other side of my province and pawikan is the word for sea turtle in Tagalog/Bisayas. I was extremely fortunate the past two days to get to visit Pamilacan for the sole purpose of looking for turtles (sometimes, I really do have to pinch myself). I was recommended to the island community as a marine biologist with sea turtle experience and spent two days snorkeling, walking white sandy beaches, and discussing the importance of sea turtles in marine ecosystems… really pinching myself!

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The beautiful, breezy Pamilacan shores

Residents of the island-a little known spot that is great for dolphin watching, sperm whale sightings, and whale shark migrations-had reported sea turtles nesting on their beaches and wanted to know if the area need protecting. I along with members of DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) and BFAR (Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources) and BEMO (Bohol Environmental Management Office) took a 45 minute trip out to the island to talk about sea turtles and MPAs (Marine protected areas – gotta love those acronyms!). It was my first time talking to people about why sea turtles are important, and in a mixture of Bisayan and English (Bisayish?) I managed to get some valuable points across – the feedback was heartwarming. And as with every meeting I attend, I learned something too, whether it’s about bureaucracy or policy or culture… meetings in the Philippines never cease to amaze me. When the meeting ended, a local council member and I headed out for a sunset snorkel to see the marine sanctuary and regular sea turtle sighting areas. I’m not sure I have the vocabulary to describe the beauty of this site with justice, so the photos will do for now:

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After snorkeling, we ate dinner on the beach front with the sound of the waves crashing in the background. We talked about sea turtles and endangered species and problems with plastic and solid waste management issues and deforestation and all these heart-breakingly sad things that are going on in the Philippines (and the world). But there was this optimism that came out of a gathering like this, where I got to meet locals that were interested in creating change for the better. It was one of the rare times, where I met fellow young scientists who were keen to learn more about the oceans and the environment and who wanted to help protect it. A lot of the time when I talk to people about pollution and try to explain why plastics are bad for their environment and health (or that they can’t be recycled and essentially survive forever), they laugh it off, shrug, and continue to throw their trash on the ground. But out on Pamilacan, people were listening, people were interested. That night under the clearest of stars and the sound of the ocean in my ear, I went to bed hopeful.

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The next morning as I conducted another snorkel survey, I collected about a handful of trash as I swam. I was overjoyed at the end, when we exited the water and saw that one of the other young biologists had done the same – we really can learn from each other. But here’s the sad part. There was nowhere to put it. We were told to leave it high on a wall away from shore, and that was it. There were no trash receptacles, there isn’t a clean up crew, or even a place to dispose of it in someone’s home. It all ends up going the same ways: burned, buried, or back out to sea. I found that I had I stepped out of this colorful, vibrant underwater jungle and onto a landfill, a beach so covered in trash.

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Wrappers drifting slowly look like jellyfish to sea turtles or carcasses to other fish who will pick at the plastic in large schools.

I was a little shattered after that moment; tears of frustration prickled my eyes. There is this incredibly beautiful, healthy coral reef right offshore and its going to be destroyed if things don’t change. And the inside of the island is beautiful, green and luscious but suffering the same problems. After the snorkel survey, we took a walk to check out the beaches where sea turtles had been reported nesting. The locals were so friendly; the adults always waving, the kids faces bright with shy smiles, and even the dogs were wagging their tails, happy to see us. There were baby goats and chickens and cattle playing in the fields around us and I found myself very grateful that I brought my good cameras. But the inland environment was suffering as much as the shoreline and I found myself hurting for this land that was being slowly destroyed by trash.

After returning from the walk, there was a break in our itinerary before lunch and I decided to go back to the reef. There is something grounding about being underwater surrounded by 1,000 shades of blue and an array of sea creatures silently moving through their lives. It’s no wonder so many of us ocean lovers dream of being mermaids, of being one with the sea. Water is healing. Water brings us life. I felt rejuvenated after my swim and I returned to land, my heart a little lighter and my mind motivated to make change. The beautiful island of trash was not going to break me but push me to work harder at making a difference, one piece of plastic at a time. It’s time to take my passions back to site and get my community involved in cleaning up the oceans!

Stay tuned! Happy holidays and, as always, thanks for reading,
S

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“No man is an island…”

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Snorkeling through a marine sanctuary, hand full of trash

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