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Mad as a Marine Biologist: Samantha Craven Conveys Her Passion for Marine Conservation in the Philippines

Posted by on Friday, March 21st, 2014

On the other side of the world from California, there is an amazing underwater landscape unparalleled in beauty. The Philippines are the world’s hidden secret when it comes to marine biodiversity. This collection of 7,109 islands is part of the coral triangle, one of the most diverse ranges of ecosystems – aquatic or terrestrial – on the planet. Unfortunately, the delicate coral reefs of the Philippines face many challenges including overfishing, destructive fishing, and pollution, to name a few.

marine conservation

Pollution is a huge problem in the Philippines and mad-made materials can harm delicate coral reefs.
Image courtesy of Sam Craven.

But there are people fighting for healthy coral reefs. Samantha Craven is engaged at the forefront of marine conservation in the Philippines, spending her days educating divers and dive centers on the ways that they can protect this special environment. Sam shares her passion fighting the battle to save these beautiful and fragile ecosystems.

Tell us about your background.

How much time have you got? I grew up in Singapore to British and Filipino parents. We eventually we moved back to the UK where I finished school, went to University for my Bachelors in Marine Biology, and then my Masters. But it’s cold there, so I moved back to Southeast Asia! That’s it in a serious nutshell!

What inspired you to become involved in marine conservation? How did you get where you are now?

Actually, it was never meant to be conservation. After a field trip when I was 11, my only “when I grow up” dream was to be a marine biologist. Technically this means studying marine life and ecosystems, rather than marine conservation, which is using data gathered by marine biologists to protect the same marine life. I joined my first job after University, running environmental education field trips in which we taught students about tropical ecosystems in situ. My colleagues were far more aware of environmental issues than me, but through them I learnt to open my eyes to what was going on around the world. I call it the conservation switch: once it’s on, you can’t turn it off.

After a couple of years, I wanted to move forward from the outdoor field trip industry. I think it is thoroughly important work, to inspire these young minds to learn more and respect their environment. It is definitely hard and rewarding, but I wanted more. I wanted to move into something more focused on conservation – so I left work and took the gap year I never had, volunteering for different conservation projects in the Philippines. It was through this process that I found my current job(s) working for a non-governmental organization (NGO) to protect coral reefs, as well as a company running marine conservation experience programmes for those wanting to break into the conservation industry.

How did your blog Mad as a Marine Biologist come about?

Having had my eyes opened to various conservation issues, I started blogging to share these stories and I tried out various mediums. It was actually the platform Tumblr that inspired me. I saw a friend’s blog and liked the “curator” feel of collecting images and quotes. I started out using it as a personal blog, but when I started posting about the experiences I had during the fieldtrip work, or my underwater shots, or diving holidays, I started to gain more followers – after a while I decided just to focus on marine biology and marine conservation content, and it has just grown from there.

Why is marine conservation so important, especially in places like the Philippines?

We find it hard to grasp the concept of the fact that the ocean affects the environmental processes we rely on daily. It’s too big, and the ocean has provided without fail, for as long as our collective memory can remember. So first of all, I believe marine conservation is important because we need to realize the crisis we have on our hands and that it’s not about a bunch of “fish huggers” who don’t want a cuddly species to go extinct. It’s about food security, coastal protection, climate change mitigation – processes we need to live but can’t afford to do manually, but the sea does it for free. We call these “ecosystem services”.

marine conservation

Philippine coral reefs contain some of the greatest biodiversity in the world.
Image courtesy of Sam Craven.

I think it’s critical in places like the Philippines, which is situated in what we know as The Coral Triangle. This area encompasses the highest diversity of marine life in the world. We take high biodiversity to mean healthy ecosystems, and therefore more productive ecosystem services. Moreover, the human population in this area is highly reliant on the sea for protein and coastal protection. Coastal communities suffer the exhausting struggle to balance harvesting these resources to be able to survive, and living with the consequences of disrupting the resources that protect them.

What are some of the most important issues facing the marine environment in the Philippines?

Law enforcement, if I’m honest. There are some great environmental laws in this country, but to say that coastal law enforcement in an archipelago is a struggle would be an understatement. Many destructive fishing techniques, like dynamite (or blast) fishing, cyanide fishing, and hand trawls have been banned, but they still occur on a daily basis. Overexploitation is also a big issue. Several fishing techniques exist that don’t damage habitats, but if you fish too many adults in a population there won’t be enough to replenish it. Grouper is a good example – you rarely see an adult Grouper on a dive here unless you are in one of the few well-managed protected areas.

And that’s just what we are doing to our country, not counting the additional pressures from illegal poachers. Whether it’s shells, fish, or sea turtles, a year doesn’t go by without a boat getting busted for trying to smuggle these out.

Then, of course, we have the ‘normal’ issues of a developing country: too much trash and not enough places to put it, poor sewage systems, tourist impacts, and land reclamation.

I’m going to stop listing them now. It can be depressing and overpowering to think of the stress we’re putting on one of our own lifelines. A friend of mine runs a marine conservation NGO here, and her words have stuck with me over the years: “Whilst the Philippines is the centre of biodiversity, it is also the centre of adversity”. We have turned a blind eye to the effects we’re having and to the corruption that enables it, but I see it changing. I see people starting to be shocked, to care. I have hope.

marine conservation

Sam teaches others how to protect the marine environment.
Image courtesy of Sam Craven.

What do you believe are the best ways to teach or inform people about these issues?

To show them! Like teaching students about coral biology whilst snorkeling on a coral reef, nothing is more impacting that seeing it for yourself. Many Filipinos can’t even swim, let alone have seen what a reef should look like. Even showing people a video can have lasting effects – we had some dive boat captains that had heard time and time again the damage an anchor can do to a reef, but seeing a video of it inspired them to change their habit. You have to show people how their actions will have serious effects on their future, and you have to do it without being patronizing or superior, because you will never understand the struggle of providing for your family like they have. You have to help them find solutions that work for their reality, not yours.

Much of my work has been in the form of training workshops, with break-out discussion groups to allow people to come up with their own solutions and therefore have ownership of them, hopefully feeling a responsibility to carry them out.

What past experiences in your field have influenced you in both positive and negative ways?

Hearing dynamite – no, feeling the blast from dynamite fishing is a wake up call. The vibrations shake your inner cavities whilst you’re diving and it is the strangest feeling. Then I think of the damage those vibrations just caused. Seeing sharks for sale in the fish market, seeing someone flick a cigarette butt in the sea – it can build up until you think, “What is the point? Why bother?” Change is coming too slowly.

But that never helped anyone. It does help to use those frustrations to drive you to keep going. Those, and the other side of this work, seeing the beauty of the sea, a coral scene with the right lighting, a Thresher shark who definitely looks more scared of you that you are of it, a school of sardines as far as you can see. They make all those frustrations worth it. I guess my point here is it all boils down to willpower, and finding the inspiration to keep you going, whether they are positive or negative.

Can you tell us about the projects you are currently working on?

I work for The Reef-World Foundation, a charity that coordinates the Green Fins project. The project was initiated by the United Nations Environment Programme to fill a gap in the marine tourism industry – there were no standards controlling the effects of the diving industry. So we work with dive shops to support them in following a Code of Conduct that not only reduces their threats, but also uses divers to raise awareness to different conservation issues.

marine conservation

A huge part of marine conservation is education – the more people know, the more they care.
Image courtesy of Sam Craven.

Diving might not seem like a big deal compared with global issues like ocean acidification, or increased tropical storm frequency – but it is a major economic source for many countries within the Coral Triangle. And with over one million new divers trained each year, the small impacts one diver or dive shop has can be crippling when you multiply that by the size of the industry.

What is your absolute favorite part about what you do?

I love the feel-good factor of working with divers, who already love reefs, and supporting them to direct that passion towards coral reef conservation. The added value is the time we get to spend in different parts of the country. When I work with our volunteers we usually spend 6-8 weeks in one location. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been able to spend that time in some of the most beautiful parts of the Philippines. I enjoy getting to know a place as more than a tourist destination.

What would you say to a young person who is interested in pursuing the field of marine science?

Experience, experience, experience. Get as much experience as you can before, during, and after college. It doesn’t always have to be exactly in line with your goal field of marine science – but working or volunteering for surveys in the field, in a lab, in an education centre, whatever you can find, will teach you skills that University cannot. And this makes you a better candidate in the future. Get experience. Work hard. Enjoy it. Those are my top three tips!

marine conservation

The vibrantly diverse group of invertebrates known as nudibranchs are certainly worthy of special attention from marine conservationists.
Image courtesy of Sam Craven.

What is your favorite ocean creature and why?

How is this a fair question? How can I choose between a Mola mola and a nudibranch, or a Manta ray and a mantis shrimp? I mean, I always say I love nudibranchs the most, but I get excited by almost everything down there! Not to mention corals – without which none of the above would be around. Ok, let’s narrow it down to two. Today, I pick nudibranchs and the Giant Squid.

Passion to fight

Even when the problem seems to be impossible to tackle, there are still people who are pursuing solutions. People like Sam Craven fight to preserve the future of some of our most valuable resources that millions of people rely upon for survival. If our oceans are to survive the activities of humans, there must be passion to protect them. Use your passion for sustainable seafood to make informed choices that defend the health of our oceans. Support seafood distributors with a sustainability certification from the Marine Stewardship Council, such as Pucci Foods.