Looking back to the past six months, there are so many things that happened, that need to be told. I hope I’ll remember everything.
After my graduation, I felt a little bit lost. In my hand a Masters in Marine Biology, but not as much experience as I had hoped. I was a diver, but far from a good one. I was asking myself what was going to happen next, trying to find an answer that felt right. In the end, I decided to look for an internship to gain first-hand experience in marine science and diving. At that point, I came across the IMR website and program. The more I read, the more it looked like what I was looking for. The people behind it and their backgrounds, the science, the aims, the techniques. I went for it, and I am so grateful that I did.
I arrived in the Philippines at the end of May, after an awfully long flight and even more awful delays. But in the end, I jumped off the plane in Dumaguete. Chelsea and Raf were waiting outside, along with the tiny blue van. They drove me to the IMR base but in the sleepiness of the jetlag and the darkness of the evening, I didn’t immediately realise how ‘jungly’ it was. One thing you should know is that Chelsea loves the garden, planting flowers and fruits. I am pretty sure that if I am to come back in a few months, the IMR base would look like more a botanical garden than a marine science station.
Anyway, I slept my jetlag off and the day after my program took off. I decided to go for my Rescue Diver first, then the Research Assistant, Divemaster and finally Research Fellow. Yes, pretty much everything they offer. Did I regret it? No, not at all.
The Rescue Diver with Oscar was intense. Lessons aside, it is not exactly fun when a person pretends to choke during lunch to – rightfully – test my reaction. However, I have to admit that these improvised emergencies were what made the Rescue Diver and First Responder course so useful. I have to thank Brent and TJ, my living mannequins for countless rescue scenarios. And I also have to thank Oscar for the great training, although sometimes keeping a straight face during the emergency scenarios was beyond my abilities.
After completing the Rescue Diver certification, my Research Assistant (RA) program started. Along with me, the program included four more people. What a ride the RA training was. We went through a series of lectures, ranging from the threats to coral reefs to coral and fish biology and identification (or ID). For those who are marine biologists, the lectures are an incredibly useful reminder. For those who are not, they are the very first step in an ocean – as much literally as figurative – of interesting information. And also because Raf can end up talking about world politics and economics from a coral impact. I still have no idea how. The ID lectures were followed by workshops, a series of coral and fish pictures that we were supposed to identify down to genus and family level respectively, using the guides and books provided. Coral names are not exactly easy to remember, but we eventually found our ways, or Chelsea found weird (sometimes very weird) tips to remember them. Oh, by the way: ‘diplo’ means five (if you ever come at IMR as RA, you’ll know what that means!). I found fishes somehow easier to identify, probably because their names do not contain ‘phyllia’ or other Latin-ish words. Also, the fish lecture had many Disney references (mainly Finding Nemo), as Oscar is a Disney enthusiast who considers fish ‘friends, not food’.
After the lectures, we went through the methodology training, aka how IMR gets the data for its evidence-based conservation. The training included underwater research methodologies and data analysis, both preceded by ‘how-to’ lectures. During the dive training, I realised that I really needed to sort out my buoyancy. While I found it relatively easy to control my buoyancy while recreational diving, it’s not quite the same when I was upside down with a camera and a stick in my hands, or holding an expensive – and awkward – stereo-video system (SVS). My buoyancy got better the more I dived, and the more we practiced survey methodologies. I feel pretty confident to say that, by the end, I nailed almost everything.
After the training, the other RAs and I started real underwater surveys, accumulating and analysing dry season data. We dived twice every day, with one (or two) days off per week. For me, this was a real challenge as I had never dived that much before. At the same time, logging so many dives really helped me with my buoyancy and to get more confident underwater. To my dismay, I have also discovered that sea snakes are inexplicably attracted by me. Sea snakes do what is called shadow hunting, that is swimming with a large fish and eating the small fishes the big one scares. To them, I was a really large fish. More than once. And Oscar, I am still sorry that I kicked a sea snake towards you. In my defense, I didn’t see it and I was so naive not to consider the possibility of a snake swimming so close to my fins.
The RA program finished at the beginning of July. The other RAs started the Research Fellow (RF) program, while Alex and I started the Divemaster training (DMT) with Oscar. If the research methodologies taught me more about buoyancy, the DMT taught me more about being aware while underwater. As the people say, you are never just fun diving anymore after becoming a DM – or an Instructor. I have to agree. If I started rescue scenarios with the Rescue Diver training, with the DMT they skyrocketed to new heights. From “people” that never dived to unresponsive divers, we went through many different scenarios that as a professional diver you might encounter. An especially funny training session happened when a communication problem left me and Alex with two ‘unconscious’ divers at the same time. We were leading one dive each, and one rescue scenario was supposed to happen in each dive. However, the diver that was supposed to be unconscious during my dive, moved to avoid a coral. Oscar, thinking that she was not unconscious enough, wisely decided to be the unconscious mannequin. I ended up rescuing Oscar, and Alex the other diver. After a frantic exit from the water and a raft of discarded BCDs, we spent the next half hour looking for the rest of our discarded gear. We found everything! To finish my DMT, I assisted Open Water and Advanced Open Water courses happening at Liquid Dumaguete Dive Resort, a partner dive resort of IMR. Being the first time I was held accountable for the safety of other divers, I was very nervous. However, Rachel, the Instructor I was assisting, was beyond amazing to make everything so funny and trouble-free that I truly enjoyed that time. I made new friends, and from that moment my dives have never been the same. Regardless of who I am diving with, I have found myself looking around, checking on people, if they are OK or if there is any problem. When everything is fine, I usually take photos.
When I was officially a DM, I could start my RF months along with the others. We started pulling together the data collected and analysed during the previous months, getting the first results. Getting results meant looking and analysing large Excel spreadsheets and lines and lines of numbers. Oscar is obsessed with pivot tables, which led him to create the largest data spreadsheet known to humanity. Results, in science, also mean writing reports. This, in turn, means fighting with Microsoft Word and its concept of image placement – or not placement – in text. The reports started taking shape and, in the meantime, I also had to choose my ‘side project’ as RF. My artsy side decided to go for the creation of posters both to go with the reports and for environmental awareness. I am weirdly, and not mildly, obsessed with graphic design, even if I have never had any training. I set off to create a poster template to easily communicate our findings and, still to date, I really like the design. I played with colours, layouts and shapes to create posters on Marine Protected Areas, ghost nets, biodiversity in the Philippines and others.
At the beginning of August, one RF left and two new RAs arrived at the IMR base. That month, I found out for the first time the feeling of being on the other side of a school desk. In all honesty, it felt weird. At that time, I delivered the lecture on coral ID – after having reviewed it. I discovered that the more I went into the lecture, the more I was learning as well. Staring at the pictures, and trying to find an easy way to explain corals’ characteristics, I was almost forced to notice details that, as an RA, I didn’t grasp. Something similar happened when I started leading coral ID dives. I had not only to find a coral, but also be sure of what genus it was. So, sticking almost my head into the coral branches or on a bommie, I crossed genus after genus from the checklist on my slate. Like the previous group of RAs, the training finished and surveys were done. In between one design and a report, one dive and one lecture, August came to an end. The new RAs and the RFs finished their time at IMR and left to go back to the non-tropical life. I was the only non-staff person left.
September was an on-desk month. More analyses, more reports, more spreadsheets. It was a hectic month, having so much interesting to play with, it was very rewarding. The hard work of the previous months was finally taking shape, and the science-based conservation along with it. Each site we dived started to be connected with a specific threat, either natural or human, from trash to bleaching, from diseases to fishing. The Dauin coast started having its baseline. I rediscovered the joys and sorrows of spending hours and hours on Google Scholar reading a thousand papers to write a sentence with two references in it. Ah, science.
September flew by, and October knocked at the door with a new RA. This time, I was assigned a bigger portion of his training. I delivered lectures not only on coral ID, but also impacts and impact ID. Contrary to the first lecture that I delivered, these felt less awkward. I found myself really enjoying that time, and having fun in between the weird coral names and Disney references. Being the only RF, I also led more ID dives, from corals to fish and impacts. I spent most of these dives trying to catch the attention of the RA rather than actually identifying things. He was more impressed by the diversity of the reef than my attempts to show him corals or fishes that he was supposed to identify. I cannot really blame him: diving in Dauin’s reefs is truly amazing. Eventually, I managed to tick off every element of my lists. When I was not giving any lecture or diving, I was still working on reports and posters. At IMR you never get bored.
October arrived at its end, marking the beginning of my last month at IMR. Two new RAs started their program in October, and again I found myself teaching and leading dives. By the end of the training of the new RAs, I taught all the lectures and led all the possible training dives. Helping them in coral and fish ID, I was surprised by how much I had learnt in five months. Rather blurry corals appeared almost obvious, small fishes swimming in the distance were clear – because of course, the fins. I started from not knowing basically any coral genus (aside from Acropora) and very few fishes. I ended up recognising at first glimpse what distinguishes a coral or no, that’s not even a coral. Not to mention my report writing and data analysis skills were on point.
When Raf asked me to write this blog, I thought it was a good opportunity to look back at these six months and taking stock of my IMR experience. Without a doubt, I learnt more than I expected. Being my first real experience outside the university, I didn’t really know what to expect. Raf, Chelsea and Oscar went above and beyond my expectations. Aside from being amazing people, they are extremely knowledgeable. Don’t be misled by their young age: they definitely know what they are doing. Not to mention their (sometimes questionable) sense of humor and their incredible party-planning abilities.
Living at IMR was sometimes a challenge in itself. Being in a tropical country, I found myself battling against spiders and mosquitos both inside and outside the dorm. Anyway, most problems can be solved with a good repellent or using a cat. I can recommend Sphinx, as she helped me multiple times during my spider-hunting endeavors. Just drop her in front of the spider and let her work. When I was not battling insects, I found time the explore IMR and Dauin surroundings. There are incredibly gorgeous places around, from lakes to waterfalls, and I strongly recommend hiring a bike to explore it in freedom.
Now that I am about to leave, melancholy is settling in. This has been an incredible, funny, challenging, rewarding whirlwind of ocean and land. And I could never thank those guys enough.