Is there a future for Lombok’s coral reefs? Yale-NUS gives clarity

(a blog post by our marine scientist, Naomi Clark-Shen)

Our planet is under immense pressure, and coral reefs are one of the most vulnerable ecosystems in the world.

So what does this mean for The Dorsal Effect, which relies on healthy coral reefs to give an alternative livelihood to shark fishermen through eco-tourism?

We set out to try and answer this question.

Introducing Yale-NUS YNSEA….

In December 2016 a group of students from the Yale-NUS College Singapore Scuba Environments Association (a student initiated club) joined The Dorsal Effect for 3 days to survey Lombok’s coral reefs.

Our mission; to provide clarity on the current state of coral reefs, identify threats, and understand if there’s a future for eco-tourism.

Setting the scene…

Before journeying out to sea, we visited Tanjung Luar fish market to watch the shark landings. There is no stronger way to show people just why The Dorsal Effect does what it does than this.

On our first morning there were none, but the second morning was unlike anything I – or the students – have ever seen.

The boats pulled up to the beach, and one by one, more than 100 dead sharks were thrown overboard and left in piles on the beach. They were then carried to the auction platform – their massive size and weight straining the poles used to carry them.

The friendly fishermen were happy; this was a good catch. They let us get close and spoke to us. They’re not the enemy many media outlets would have you believe.

shark

sharkpile

Now that we have seen the problem, let’s check out a solution
The shark fishermen we engaged for this trip (and so weren’t a part of the morning’s catch) are patiently waiting for us with their boats.

It seems symbolic that we board the boats at the shark market itself. The noise, smells and chaos of the shark market linger around us as we step into the boats and head out to fresher territory.

The coral reef surveys…

We use the first day to train the Yale-NUS students in survey methods. For these surveys we want to assess coral health, and the abundance of marine creatures. The students use underwater measuring tapes as they do transects, as shown below!

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Despite the short training time, and bad weather (it was monsoon season!) the students were vigorous, and we managed to survey 6 different sites.

 So how are the coral reefs faring?


It’s mixed. Some sites were relatively pristine with healthy coral and schools of colourful fish – just what you would want from a snorkelling experience. Despite this, even the best sites showed signs of bleaching, with beautiful branching coral sporting white tips.

coral

In stark contrast, some sites were completely decimated. Coral was reduced to grey rubble on the sea floor and there were no marine creatures. Why? Dynamite fishing reportedly still occurs in the area, and can completely wipe out entire swathes of reef. There was also evidence of boats having dropped their anchor on corals and breaking them.

coraldead

 While The Dorsal Effect has strict regulations for it’s operations – such as no anchor dropping on corals, or kicking of coral by guests – we have sadly seen other tour operators that do not. We have witnessed a once pristine reef completely ruined because of this.

And of course, with 8 million tonnes of plastic entering the ocean each year, we had our encounters with plastic pollution too. Bags drifted in the water column, while a poor sea urchin was completely wrapped in plastic.

urchin

So what does the future look like?

It’s hard to say. For now, there are still beautiful reefs that we can use for eco-tourism, but this won’t be the case for long if they aren’t looked after.

  • Tourist operators must understand that to profit from these reefs, they must stay in good condition. No one wants to see dead coral reefs devoid of marine creatures but full of plastic.
  • The presence of dynamite fishing is something we cannot control – but can only hope that regulations become stricter as the locals realise the reef is worth more when kept healthy and alive.
  • The looming issue of climate change is always there. It is already showing signs of the reefs, and we can only hope this does not get worse.

We are currently thinking of ways to engage others in Lombok to make the above clear and find solutions, so we can collectively benefit from coral reefs in a way that does not harm them.

Thank you to the Yale-NUS students…

Not many people can learn marine survey methods for the first time and execute them as well as these students did.

We will now use this data to understand which sites are best for eco-tourism, and what needs to be done to protect Lombok’s coral reefs. We will continue to keep an eye on the coral reefs and monitor their health.

In a world where environmental degradation is so intertwined with our existence, we hope Lombok’s reefs can stay safe and healthy, so that Lombok’s people can sustainably benefit from them for years to come.

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Trip and activities carried out made possible thanks to the support of:

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Bad thoughts good thoughts

There’s something about rich sunset hues over wide skies and sprawling beaches that brings forth the urge to blog again, that urge I had been seeking for a while. Many a fleeting thought passed for the months since my last post but never an inspiration of a moment to expound on them further nor feeling the desire to be cathartic.

The recent sudden, unexpected passing of dear Rob Stewart who has inspired me on this path, definitely shocked my system a fair bit…yet I couldn’t help feeling too if conservation is something for the privileged or only the privileged has time or money to afford to be in. I love Rob Stewart to bits for his Sharkwater that has been most moving, yet if he didn’t come from a place of privilege to be able to experience diving and the oceans at a young age, would he have been able to have walked on this path with such dedication and commitment? I really hate how being on this path is such a struggle every single day mostly due to financial struggles. Are my convictions waylaid? Don’t get me wrong, I love Rob Stewart deeply and am very very affected badly by his premature passing, but nagging general thoughts about conservation and privilege remain.

So I have reached this stage where I am starting to feel tired that The Dorsal Effect is, in a sense endless and I can’t really run away from it or wrap it up yet also feeling frustrated about keeping in going and not having the capacity to think about expansion or growth or development. I feel guilty for harbouring such frustrations too but sometimes I just want to disappear into the ground.

I get frustrated when people ask me how do I change the fishermen’s minds or why is the boat trip so expensive. I did not change their minds not did I set forth to change anything in the fabric of their being. All I did was asked questions and helped them find out for themselves what are possible alternatives that they would be open to and then making sure I pay them well for that alternative. And the thing about it being expensive? If it is not as lucrative or even more lucrative than shark hunting, why on earth would the shark fishermen want to convert? I definitely am not here to cheapen the value of the alternative livelihood of ecotourism and I think only with good pay will the fishermen be more open to the needed regulations of ensuring people snorkel responsibly and carry out the trip responsibly as well (shall expound on that in a bit).

I feel like my heart dies a little now every time I am back in Lombok. I see other boat operators who are not necessarily ex shark fishermen, copying our snorkel trails and beach stops as well, yet they are so irresponsible about it, taking too many tourists to certain sites, or dropping their anchor on the corals, or allowing their guests to throw traah in the ocean or the beaches or even feeding the fishes and picking up the shells and marine life. Was so saddened to see a dead knobby sea star at the intertidal walk today, I can’t help but wonder if it was the doing of other irresponsible tourists and boat operators who were all too keen for a photo opportunity with the sea star, or maybe a boat docking crushed it in its path.

ravaged reefs from irresponsible tourists snorkelling
ravaged reefs from irresponsible tourists snorkelling

 

I guess a lot of negativity fills this post but in the heart of my being open and honest to all my posts, I figured I needed to be up front about my thoughts and feelings with myself and everyone else as I confront these demons over and over again. But I think I need to be clear about one thing too, and that is that change doesn’t happen overnight and sometimes or rather most times, the path of conservation exists on a spectrum than working towards a focussed end goal. Sometimes you pick other good things along the way of working towards something originally intended and that can be fulfilling too, like the children on The Dorsal Effect’s school trips being better acquainted with marine conservation or the need to protect sharks or awareness of sustainable consumption and reduction of plastics use even.

The fins we saw at the fish market on boat trip morning
The fins we saw at the fish market on boat trip morning

 

I cried when I saw a man on the streets of Lombok throw a rock at a stray dog and then having to see the dog cower in fear then wait a distance away for the man to leave before going to his spot to scavenge the food scraps of the bag of food he left behind, to the very depths of the paper bag. Why do the dogs here have to live such cruelly harsh lives without ever really knowing love and affection from humans?

I think more and more so, my heart is no longer with humans because of their negative impact on the world but I still really wish we could all start to see that we as humans are not apart from the animals we abuse, mistreat and harm indiscriminately but that we are all a part of this world together. I am heartened by the young and spritely couple, Vig and Shan, on this trip though, as I see them buying biscuits from the provision store to distribute out to the stray dogs on the Kuta streets. They help me see there is hope in humankind and they move me deeply with their compassion.

I am not giving up as I am already thinking of which group of students or corporates I should next work with doing up boards of responsible tourism guidelines for the sites we visit on the boat trip but yes my soul is saddened and my heart of heavier this very moment as I wish I could do so much more and so much quicker for the sharks and the stray dogs…but yes, don’t stay fixated on the end goal, focus on the process of hitting different markers in the spectrum, no matter how fluid or out of control it may sometimes get.

  1. No use of non reef safe sunscreen that would bleach corals
  2. No kicking or stepping on corals (dead zones are a very sad sight and corals take a very VERY long time to regrow)
  3. No touching, picking up or harrassing of marine life, please respect them in their natural habitat
  4. No dropping of anchor or corals
  5. No feeding of fishes at snorkel sites
  6. Please regulate the number of people who should be in the water at any given time
  7. No picking of shells or taking home of anything from the beaches or snorkel sites (the hermit crabs need their homes!)
awesome bunch of NSS boat trippers who love the oceans and animals so much!
awesome bunch of NSS boat trippers who love the oceans and animals so much!

 

It was really good visiting Paul Friese from Bali Sharks again though. Everytime the craziness of politics gets in the way of NGOs and good work and I wonder why organizations just don’t collaborate together for win-win and working ourselves out of what we do (as Warren Buffet says, the best philanthropic businesses are the ones where you work yourself out of business, or something like that, a reminder from Paul). So it is always heartening to speak with like minded friends who are passionate, like Paul. I totally don’t mind if The Dorsal Effect ceases to be relevant anymore simply because there is no more shark hunting and consumption happening or if the fishermen find other sustainable alternatives or even if they run the eco tours on their own co-op model but ethically and responsibly with attention paid to sustainability of the environment, reefs and sharks. Let’s start working towards win win with positive open sharing and collaborations now instead of selfish hoarding of resources, or coming to another country thinking you can make a positive change quickly, or coming with a saviour mentality of making a tangible change now (no thanks to how YEP is run sometimes..)

Some hope as we swim with the white tip reef sharks at Paul's Bali Sharks sanctuary.
Some hope as we swim with the white tip reef sharks at Paul’s Bali Sharks sanctuary.

Catshark rescue and release

Our recent boat trip with a group of NSS members turned out far more eventful than expected as we stumbled upon a pair of coral catsharks that were being sold at the Tanjung Luar fish and market and that were still breathing. The instinct of wanting lives lived kicked as I hastily asked for the price and asked the group if we should buy and release the sharks. The hesitation of encouraging the fishermen to eventually catch sharks like that purely to be sold to us next time kicked in briefly, but the wanting for the sharks to live came through stronger so we purchased the pair for idr20,000 and a pail for idr15,000 and asked for some water.

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Oliver of the group was, in a most touching way, all protective and caring for the sharks, making sure the pail was well taken care of until we brought it on the boat.

Eager to release the sharks, I lost all logical and scientific thought of allowing the sharks to acclimatise back to the waters first and we tried to release them in the first snorkel site which proved too deep for the sharks. We brought the first shark in the water and it turned out to be a boy with his claspers. Still weak and unable to swim, Oliver carefully and gently held on to him and massaged him to allow him to regain his strength as he breathed slowly unable to move yet. We decided the other shark needed to go back in the water fast too ( I found out it was a girl) but in my haste for her to be back in the water again, I dropped her from height and she fell to the bottom of the reef, lifeless. Kevin dived under instinctly to pick her up again but when she got to the surface, bits of gunk came out of her mouth and she stopped breathing. I couldn’t stop crying as I passed her lifeless body to Agus to put her back in the boat again. We also noticed she had a deep hook wound gash at the neck area as well as a reddened abdomen already though but it was still incredibly sad to lose her.

I composed myself and went to Oliver who was still patiently massaging the boy shark who was still breathing but not moving. I told him then that we should probably bring him back to the boat and try again from the beach so he would have time to swim from shallow waters. He agreed and we took the boat to Segui Beach.

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Once we beached at Segui, PJ took him out and the moment he touched the waters, he started swimming, much to all of our amazement and excitement! He swam about the beach and our boats for a long time, even prancing around our feet, as if in gratitude to us (were we being anthropomorphic there?) before he swam away to deeper waters. We were all in awe of his renewed strength and I think none was happier than Oliver.

After the release, Oliver and I took the lifeless body of the girl shark to the shore, dug a deep hole in tears and buried her in the sand, praying for a good rebirth for her.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the 2 of them the rest of the day and how emotional the day was for me. If one life can be saved, why not save it?
The experience was so bittersweet with one death and life saved and I think I have really learnt the grave importance of patience in life saving, and that bottom dwelling sharks need to be released from the shore to give them time to swim from shallow to deep waters should an experience like that present itself again on another trip.  More importantly, seeing the boy swimming free reinforced in me the love to work closely with sharks more and more. This journey has been fulfilling to say the least, in the last 3 years, and I have come to see more light in the arduous path even if I won’t see the results in my lifetime.

Watch him swim free here:

Can’t stop

So I made this blog entry below and saved it as a draft the day before the SST students were due to return from their marine conservation trip with The Dorsal Effect…little did I expect the turn of events since the initial blog post (everything did not go off without a hitch actually) and how a volcano can wreak such havoc and keep the group in Lombok for 7 more unintended days of stay. The days since this blog post up until the group’s return late the night before, proved harrowing, stressful and stretching for me as I felt as if The Dorsal Effect was going to fall apart before my very eyes with the students’ and teachers’ bad experience of being stranded there for longer than they should.

But, I must say I was really humbled and definitely awed by the dedication of the trip leaders and the immense support that Lik from X-Trekkers provided in those day of inability to come back home, helping the students to learn valuable lessons in the those extra days as well. As I Skyped in on the second extra day’s night reflection session, Wei Yuet addressed the group and gave the group and me a very valuable lesson in life, that we cannot control everything even though we live in a Singapore where everything must usually move like clockwork, and that we can never underestimate the powers of nature.

I cried a lot each extra day the Lombok airport remained closed and by the time I got to the airport on Thursday the following week where the group finally made their way back via Bali, I was feeling so guilty for the whole thing I was just apologizing to every parent and spouse who showed up to pick up their precious dear ones and broke down when Lik exited the baggage pick up area first. What really threw me off was that some of the parents still thanked me for their child’s experience and the students’ spirits were definitely high and I think I couldn’t have asked for a more understanding and magical group. They broke me, they really did, in a good way. Sure, there were unforeseen circumstances, but do I want more students to get to experience this? Yes, I think I definitely do, and this keep me living and breathing – the magic of hearing how these little marine conservationists are delving deeper into the very issues that I feel deeply for, and thinking about being more responsible global citizens for a more environmentally sustainable world with deep respect and awareness for nature, the oceans and wildlife. Thank you so so much, Hoe Teck, and SST, for believing in the value of this program first last year and chose to continue with it this year, I have been fired up, inspired and moved by your takeaways from the trip.

Here is more details about their trip:

http://www.sst.edu.sg/exhibition/gcp-lombok-2015/

and here is the initial blog post I made a week ago:

 

I like Miley Cyrus. I really do. In spite of the disdain some people may have towards her, she champions many beliefs and causes I hold dear, and she doesn’t give a shit about what others think. That is definitely something I would like to pick up from her, not giving a shit about the haters and keep doing what is right. I love her for her compassion for animals and her choice to go vegan, to adopt and not shop for pets, to speak up for the homeless and the LGBTs. And I have We Can’t Stop on repeat on my playlist. The title itself drives me forward alongside some things that have happened and which moved me tonight.

 

Thanks (or no thanks) to the volcanic ash, I wasn’t able to join the School of Science and Technology group of students in Lombok this week for their marine conservation trip with The Dorsal Effect. But thanks to technology, I was able to Skype in with the group 2 nights of their 4 nightly reflections and it moved me deeply what I heard from the students, the teachers, and my beloved trip leaders who added so much value to the sharings and reflection sessions. Tonight, the students reflected on their boat trip and as they each ended their individual sharing with a question, the very same questions I keep asking myself over and over again, somehow hearing it from all these junior conservationists fires me up all over again. This journey has felt long as I trudge into the 3rd year of The Dorsal Effect’s existence of keeping afloat. My blog posts have dwindled as I get weary in the fight. When I feel smaller and smaller in this fight and frustrated at how slow change can be. As I start to doubt over and over if I am even making a difference the right way.

 

But when schools with amazing teachers like SST show up and light the path, and have such great faith and belief in me by coming back again for another run of a marine conservation trip 2nd year running, I know I can’t stop, as Miley says. The program for the students went on without a hitch in spite of Mt Rinjani’s spews, that’s proof enough that I can’t stop. When the students speak with conviction about what can be done to inspire and wake people up from being indifferent to the environmental ills of the world and the urgency to conserve what little we have left, I know we can’t stop. Each life moved has a potential multiplier to move more lives to want to live more responsibly, to have more awareness of the impact we create with our every actions, to make conservation and compassion for nature and animals more and more mainstream.

 

I have been very very very lucky in meeting amazing people like Nikola, Ruby and Wei Yuet and have them be able to come on the trip with SST as trip leaders who added such magical value to the students in different ways. Complementing one another with expertise in their different fields of marine biology, anthropology, responsible and ethical tourism as well as environmental studies and photography, they added such value to the trip bringing forth deeper thought to the table for the students to question and reflect on. Their deep convictions in conservation evident in the way they speak to the students and I just wish I could keep them forever. I guess the fact that I relentlessly keep meeting good people and angels along the way in this journey is probably proof enough that I cannot stop in the vision for The Dorsal Effect, no matter how frustrating it can be.

 

I want to continue to light the path, to keep the vision of ending shark hunting alive, to inspire in more and more youths and tourists alike, the need to respect nature and champion conservation through responsible ecotourism of The Dorsal Effect. Conservation needs to be mainstream and without the restricting label of conservation itself. And we can’t stop trying to make that happen. Let’s go, SST, you have inspired and fired me up to want to keep prospecting to as many schools as we can.

What do we dream? We dream no more shark markets in the world, just once shark hunters educating the rest of the world about responsible tourism. We dream bigger portions of the oceans being marine sanctuaries. We dream more and more young people being responsible for the oceans and nature. We dream a world where everyone can swim free with sharks in the oceans. And we will do everything we can to make this dream a reality.

NUS Tembusu College and TDE

Being in Lombok always evokes a sense of need to blog again. After a few heartbreaking posts, I am glad this is a high spirited one. So the NUS Tembusu College students initiated, plannned and executed a most ambitious but inspiring multi stop trip to Indonesia as a part of their animal of the year (Komodo dragon) inaugural conservation and learning science trip.

I had the honour of being a part of their journey with The Dorsal Effect as they made Lombok the second stop of their 4-part Indonesia journey. I had been in close contact with some of these students a few months back already when they started planning and to actually see this trip happen after their many months of tireless work, I was truly impressed to see how it panned out.

The Steer Indonesia group of NUS Tembusu College students had a truly powerful team of which each and every single person had a role to play and stepped up to play it well throughout the course of the trip. Their seriousness and sense of focus to the trip progress was definitely heartening and it brought a sense of hope that these young lives were taking action and making ambitious plans for a meaningful trip while still staying grounded and humble.

You know technology is not wasted on the young when I see how the students carefully navigated a drone so well with such calmness and good thought through parts of the boat trip. Not only was it fun to be a part of the drone captures, it was somehow moving too, in a cute way to see hope in these youths as they dared to break boundaries and try new challenges.

On the boat trip itself, I was impressed at how the students went out of their comfort zone and went snorkelling in spite of whether they were comfortable in the water or could see without their glasses, or it was their first time at it or not. They were quietly resilient and brave in many ways and I couldn’t help falling in love with this bunch indeed!

I must say I was particularly impressed with the head of the group who primarily came up with the idea of the trip, KJ. With my interactions with him, he struck me as a really focussed, ambitious yet grounded, far sighted, detail oriented, steadfast and humble leader indeed and his drive and wanting to push for more and beyond his boundaries and possibilities really inspired me to press on in my quest too. He was resolute in decision making and never left once lost his cool yet struck great rapport with the rest of the group, responding to feedback swiftly.
Was really really grateful for Naomi’s help on this trip too and I can hope that her with her love for shark and animals as well as marine sciences background, would love to go on helping out with The Dorsal Effect!

Definitely heartening moments when I saw that the group had listened to what I said at the pre trip briefing and brought their own utensils and lunchboxes for the trip, initiated trash pick up at the beaches, shared and gave feedback honestly and constructively at the night reflection session and asked questions aplenty on the boat trip and at the shark market itself. I will work on making the conservation and educational element of the trip stronger, guys, thank you.
Thank you NUS Tembusu College Steer team and Naomi, there is never a dull moment on the boat trip no matter how many times I am on it, thanks to the diversity of the group and the inspiration all of you bring me. I am always learning and always looking at the issue in different perspectives thanks to all the precious exchanges, experiences and interactions. When I saw how the shark auction people seemed more nervous with your documentation team’s filming, Tembusu College, I am also heartened when we found out that their nervousness came from the fact that rays were caught even though it has been banned now and that shark prices have been falling so they were afraid more cameras and filming will only lead to more drop in prices. This story needs to be told over and over again and I hope they never fear the falling of shark prices anymore because there are better, more ethical and sustainable alternatives provided to them through The Dorsal Effect!

If we are not part of the solution, we are already part of the problem. Let’s press on in the vision now.

 

Good story

It had been a pretty unexpected end to the year of 2014 indeed. What started off as a casual mention of an upcoming Our Better World voting competition became something I would never have imagined happening.

Once the voting started and I saw how close to the possibility of winning The Dorsal Effect was, something triggered in me to reach out to the like minded for help. Before I knew it, the link share had a life of it’s own and started spreading further than I ever imagined possible and without my having to get it out there all on my own. It was really the work of a community and the power of an international team that loved sharks, that really propelled The Dorsal Effect’s story to 40,000 over views. Am most touched when even local artistes Tay Ke Wei and Daniel Sassoon actually voted and reshared on Facebook, as well as internationally acclaimed French film maker, Bruno Aveillan. Definitely super touched and I wish I could screenshot every single reshare here, there is just too many amazing people to thank, so so many of you I haven’t even had the privilege to meet yet and I wish I could! Please please don’t be offended if I haven’t thanked you for your efforts of voting and calling out for votes or haven’t had the chance to speak to you personally, know that all of you are special for believing in me and for loving sharks with one heart all the same. :)

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Seeing the call for votes and reshares of the voting link of friends and friends of friends and family, of like minded and the impassioned for sharks and oceans, the ones who struggled at building their own dreams and start up too even from those who don’t usually share voting links to call others to vote. It was all very very emotional and touching, AND humbling for me. I never thought 2014 would end with such a bang indeed and with such a strong international community backing me up, I know I cannot stop nor give up no matter how the odds always seem to stack up.

It was most interesting indeed too to hear from eternal optimist friends going “3000 votes only, can catch up one!” in response to losing the lead on votes, and they reminded me of the importance of looking at the many alternative ways to solve problems and take no as just an answer for a go ahead to find other channels instead. I think I have grown too in the course of building The Dorsal Effect, to realise that impossible is really nothing but you just really gotta keep asking and looking. Nothing sounds incredible anymore when you plough forward for an ideal. And the best part of it, you are never really alone, and thank you, all of you, for stubbornly reminding me of that through the month of December! Enjoying the shark facts, setting personal reminders each day to vote, pleading with or “coercing” your kakies (friends) to vote, you made the experience such an enriching and fun one for me too in spite of the emotional high!

So in spite of the big jump to overcome, we still wanted to end the voting competition on a good note with fun, good company, good vegetarian food, and a good ole shark pub quiz. It was amazing how everything came into place in a matter of 2 weeks, thanks to an amazing bunch of friends who believed in me and worked their own magic to support me too. Thank you, dear Shannon for responding to my call of Facebook (AND for your funny ways of calling out for votes on Facebook), Pav for offering up The Hangar and an amazing vegetarian menu so readily and quickly. Sarah and Dan for the amazing trivia questions and slides, Wei Yuet for the beautiful photos of an amazing fun night, Wena for the really cute shark guru and swimmer up stickers for the pub quiz winners and fiance Wilson for technical and emotional (and all the in between) support. Special thanks to the lovely people who showed up too, Doreen, Yixuan, Weng Fai, Vik, Leann, Sumita, Veronica, Xin Min, Sylvia, Victor, Yinn Yinn, Sharon, Sheena with Shannon, Kai and company as well as Sarah’s amazing colleagues and Pav’s amazing friends (sorry I only got Amon’s name :( ). You are right, Wei Yuet and Vik, it’s important to have fun and it’s a bonus to win and have fun but no one wants to win but not have fun so at least we got one part of it right! :)

Here’s to an amazing year ahead for marine conservation and sharks, it really heartens me to see articles like that at the end of the year:

http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2014/12/24/14-ocean-conservation-wins-of-2014/

 

And for The Dorsal Effect:

Shark identification and upcycling as well as ecotourism hospitality alternative livelihood for shark fishermen

Work with WCS closer in terms of possibility of transforming TL fish market away for shark fishing with education and awareness.

More converted fish markets around the world

improved living standard for fishermen

more marine focus and outreach in the schools near fish markets

Bend and break and walk on

It has been a while since I blogged and I guess the high from a fruitful November from the successful marine conservation school trip fired me up to have been kept busy trying to propel The Dorsal Effect forward thereafter. I particularly enjoyed the sharing at SocialCollab where I got to meet the most amazing people ever, who believed and shared in the dream I shared as I spoke about The Dorsal Effect and my love for sharks.

The December came and I was really humbled to have been one of the entries for Our Better World’s Story of the Year competition and when first told about it, I didn’t think very much about it but I guess when I saw how everyone was fervently voting and supporting and the possibility of winning the grant to take marine conservation to greater heights with The Dorsal Effect became a very real possibility, I started to step up and do my part in gratitude for the votes too.

Thanks to very dear friend, very dear family and very dear ex students, I have been humbled, encouraged and touched by your relentless love and encouragement. When dear Adi first shared about his vision ahead of him (shan’t share too much here now first as it’s not the right time but in time, he will be doing amazing work and I will share more then), I was inspired to share shark facts for votes each day, as my way of thanking everyone for the constant vote and support. That really fired me up to find out even more about sharks than I already knew about and I was amazed by the positive reactions from friends, and the subsequent follow up questions they would ask with respect to the fact shared, which in turn got me to learn more alongside them too! Just like the inquisitive best students in class, I was amazed and excited by the interest and awe in sharks I was generating and that was when I was reminded of my time as a teacher.

Today while asking some ex students to help vote, I just broke down in front of the computer as I thought back about the times I was there through their tears, rebellion and growing pains and now they have been nothing but love, support and pure encouragement for my pain and struggles in taking off The Dorsal Effect, and the tables are now turned as they are there for me through my pains instead. I was just sobbing away as Jerome told me “it gets real shitty before it gets good so if it is shitty now it means you must be doing something good”. I really wonder how much good I probably might have done in my previous life, thankfully, to deserve all these little angels who continue to support and believe in me long after I am no longer their teacher.

Touched by dear all fellow Saints and JC friends like Whan Lee who set reminders for themselves to vote daily, to JET and Fuku alumni folks, the Raleigh alumni folks like dear Bridgette and her daily posts, who have been nothing but boosters! Touched by the maternal and paternal family who continually track the votes and get their friends to vote too. It’s really really cute and heartening to see them get all excited, invested and fired up by this competition! I don’t feel so alone with all of you in this with me!

I have been feeling bad even asking people to vote but dear friend, Edgar put things into perspective for me when he said I should just keep asking if I truly believe in what I envision for The Dorsal Effect and that my friends have no right to feel uncomfortable about me asking. It feels like an imposition on my part but indeed, the tremendous support only shows how everyone is backing me up in making this work so the sharks have it better, so I have to persevere and be relentless.

Let’s truly make 2015 count for the misunderstood sharks because it’s all about wanting to live in a world where we have stewardship and take responsibility for whether future generations still get to see sharks alive in the oceans, right? Live and fight for the generations ahead, not our current one, and everything will start to make a lot more sense.

Pressing on, guys, and in deep gratitude for this great boost, just thought I would share my thoughts thus far before we push forward with 2 more weeks of awesome shark fact learning and love alongside the votes!OBW-1024x765

http://vote.ourbetterworld.org/entry/8048331

Yours and with love many many times over,

Kathy

World of the damned

A recent sudden passing of an old friend, a NatGeo Live talk by underwater photographer, David Doubilet, and what I saw on my last trip to Lombok got me thinking about whether the world IS indeed really damed to ruination very quickly now.

So on the last trip to Lombok in early August, it was sinister how everyday I was there at the Tanjung Luar fish market, there wasn’t a single shark landed at the auction grounds and apparently there hadn’t been any for the last 2 weeks since before we arrived in Lombok again. Perhaps it really was the full moon and the Ramadan period to be blamed for poor catches, but it was also very likely too that perhaps there just wasn’t very much sharks left to be caught anymore… Looking at the dismal faces on the shark buyers’ faces in the empty auction grounds was certainly very surreal for me. The blood and guts and thousands of sharks that had been slaughtered on this very ground for years now, was hauntingly empty for the first time for me.

But it is in the positive stories that conservationists and the likes should seek after all in spite of the dire straits we are currently in right? I met with Dharma from Wildlife Conservation Society again and it is heartening to hear about how training the shark fishermen into alternative forms of sustainable fishing for squid and skipjack tuna is already underway and how there are plans for a shark sanctuary in South Sumbawa going on. How WCS has been documenting the shark catching situation in the Tanjung Luar for a while now and have plans to propose that 3 species of hammerhead sharks be put on the no catch list alongside the whale shark no catch legislation that is already in place.

There was so many moments on the trip where I felt disillusioned all over again. I could be picking trash off the eastern coast of Lombok on the boat trip one day and the very next morning I will see the villagers in Kuta emptying their pails of trash into the ocean and have all this emotional turmoil in me just watching it happen and not be able to do anything about it (for now only, I hope). When I would be putting knobby starfishes back into wetter grounds with tourists one day and seeing children selling bottles of sand off the pristine beaches of southern Lombok the very next day. At which point exactly did we feel we have the right to take nature and animals as our own to convert into profit dollars? How dare we?

We went for a heartening talk by David Doubilet at NatGeo Live recently and his breathtaking photos of the beautiful underwater filled us with awe and longing, even more so we felt the ache in our hearts when he says we have barely 30 years before all the corals are destroyed in our oceans. Next thing I know, Shell is drilling the Arctic for oil even after 2 failed attempts at seeking out oil spots.

I could go on and on about the depressing state of the oceans but I guess the one thing that shook the core of my being was seeing an old friend pass on so suddenly after having taken ill for just a few days recently. Not just any friend, and even though we never really hung out much enough, this was one special girl whose heart for the oceans and compassion for animals won my respect deeply. It’s the best of us whom we lose, that fills us with immense pain, somehow. As if it wasn’t hard enough fighting a seemingly losing battle against the ills of the world, we had to lose another ocean warrior who knew the oceans deeply and was constantly mesmerized by what it had to offer, one who loved diving under over and over again and could readily wax lyrical about her experiences with its beauty and wonder, for all to be captivated and converted. How does the world lose someone like that and still go on? The shock and immense pain of the loss of a good soul is never easy and leaves me with a greater sense of disillusionment for now. Thank you, Joanna Yong, for teaching about the importance of living life to the fullest most genuinely when you took off on your year long adventures around the world and showed us that nothing is impossible. I wish I knew what’s the reason you had to be taken from us so very suddenly but I want you to live on through a good project, and as I have said on The Dorsal Effect’s Facebook page, I will find the resources and expertise possible to start a coral restoration program in your name at the sites of The Dorsal Effect’s boat trip off Tanjung Luar on the southeast coast of Lombok, just because you believed enough in what I am doing, to come on the boat trip on a very special World Ocean’s Day just 2 months ago and I deeply appreciate the support and encouragement.

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Track the miracles

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So I realised how important it is for me to document this journey and it’s up and downs that have helped me to grow so much thus far. I went to a seminar recently where the speaker shared about the good in problems because they lead to solutions in business. To take it a step further, I think the problems that surface for me every once in a while are constantly training me to have a limitless instead of a limiting a mind. It’s really through the many breakdowns when new problems crop up do I realise just how panicky and weak I really actually am, to cave in easily instead of seeking, asking and being open to impossible ideas. But I realised the problems tend to push me too. It’s amazing how much I have grown and continue to grow, as a person and more amazing how I am meeting countless amazing people in this path of life, that has veered so far from the one I loved but was perhaps too comfortable in. Letting go of inhibitions, acquiring new skills to keep afloat, seeing the good in everyone and every situation, broadening my perspectives on situations, being sincere and helping others as far as possible in spite of own circumstances…truly enriching and fulfilling that even the current financial loss seems worth the sacrifice.

I saw a quote by Anais Nin recently on a friend’s Facebook status on which his friend commented, “I think I must a mermaid, Rango. I have no fear of depth and a great fear of shallow living.” and I fell in love with it instantly. How the challenges of trying to start something new comes with deep anguish and deep fulfilment at different stages of the journey continually and I relish in it.

On the recent Easter break Lombok trip in April. I had a most amazing group of people on the boat trip and I know if I don’t blog about it, it would be unfair to my life to lose the memory of the magic that came with it. Thanks to a really awesome underwater photographer (bless his blue heart and love for the oceans) I met at a TEDx youth talk I attended some months back (save for how unimpressed I am by the curator, of which that topic really deserves a whole new blog post of its own), Andrew Lim, who relentlessly offered help in documenting the marine life on the boat trip we go on and who kept on encouraging and reassuring me to believe that everything will fall into place in spite of the financial and logistical odds (and they magically did!). Right from arranging for a dive master and dive gear to be transported from Kuta to Tanjung Luar (thank you Discovery Divers for helping to make the impossible possible by agreeing to my crazy requests) to ensuring that Andrew managed to get to Lombok given the short window of time he had before his major leg operation and amidst limited leaves from work left for him then, I think it was really a miracle that everything aligned and we pulled it off. I just can’t wait to see and show off the lovely underwater photos Andrew took while diving in the snorkel sites we frequent. The boy is truly talented and I would love to see him take this passion in underwater photography to greater heights and for greater oceanic good.

I even had the honour of having a once National Geographic photographer on this trip as well, coming along to document the trip as part of his independent film project on shark fin and Indonesia, titled Findonesia. He was all heart and I had the most hearteningly deep and soulful conversations with him about how depressing and disheartening it can sometimes be, being burdened by the ills of the world upon the environment and the oceans, yet pressing on in faith of the goodness of mankind to make positivie change with increasing awareness of problems. I believe awareness should be empowering and not disillusioning. Thank you for the sincere and heartfelt review on Tripadvisor you gave for The Dorsal Effect, I have been greatly humbled and encouraged by my encounter with you.

All the amazing fishermen I have met at Tanjung Luar who now call me kawan; Sidik, Abdul Karim, Suhardi, Ophi. I long to transform Tanjung Luar into a place with sustainable income options through marine conservation educational ecotourism and sustainable fishing options for you. Where only live and not dead sharks are seen in the waters off the fish market. I don’t know how exactly to get there yet but as Xander, suggested, I think I should hazard asking Richard Branson for a hand? ? Because really, nothing is truly impossible as long as the mind can conceive, right?

For the many moments I have felt so helpless, I must remember too the countless moments where the stars aligned, real life angels appeared to give a lift and miracles happened.

On the flight to Lombok yesterday, I realised I have been on budget flights so much I haven’t seen a TV screen in front of me for a plane ride in such a long while that I kinda wanted to cry, thankful in my heart to Bill O Donnell for sharing about the Voucherlicious cheap flights deal for Qatar Airways, Singapore to Bali, on his Facebook wall a month back. I chose to watch the movie, Mandela, because I needed to be inspired and reminded of the importance of patience and biding one’s time. Thank you for having shaped my life since reading your book Long Walk to Freedom back when I was 15, Mr Nelson Mandela, you’re my long standing hero whose spirit I want to emulate and bring greater good in the world.

So here I am back in Lombok right now with the DDB team who are helping Our Better World on their first collaborative project of a video on The Dorsal Effect, I am truly blessed that they chose to give us a hoist by filming the project, and eventually sharing the story. There are many many more good things to come too, a TV crew in June and even possibly Blackfish movie screenings on the Sharksavers side for World Oceans Month. Soldiering on!

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Giving Up Is Always The Easier Option

While trying to keep spirits up and rationalizing a problem that just popped up this morning, I had a sudden meltdown, so sudden that I actually shocked myself too when it happened. I guess there was a disconnect between the head and the heart for me for that moment in time as I broke down and I was bawling my eyes up with visions of doom as I called the boy (much to his alarm and scare) wailing about how I can’t do this alone anymore and how it really feels like I’m holding a bucket full of water trying to bring it to the end point with all the water still intact, but holes upon holes just pop up about the bucket just as I am slowly mending each hole before the water is all emptied from the bucket. Perhaps today I reached breaking point again while trying to raise money to mend some holes, realizing that more holes had popped up because I had taken time to raise the money needed. Sometimes it feels like the cost just escalates, although I really believe in looking ahead and far and trusting in the dream and the vision. And for sure, the cost of entrepreneurship is more than monetary, as I collapsed in despair today. But, as a dear old JC friend who has walked the path of entrepreneurship, Li Wei, shares, giving up is always the easier option, are you going to take it?

I truly think I have a semi-charmed life when I look at the angels who keep supporting me and egging me through this road, and they do it ceaselessly, unwaveringly…and I am touched by their commendable efforts to keep me going. I am amazed at how the people you meet and keep on meeting in the course of life will always come back into your life again for a purpose that touches the heart so deeply, and I am humbled and awed by connections in life.

What really keeps me going beyond the vision of sharks swimming free in the oceans for my future generations to behold, is the countless heartfelt stories and offers of goodwill I have received right from the start of choosing this path.

I was touched when a very old friend and ex boyfriend, Aaron, a most interesting and quirky pilot with a head packed full of interesting information and knowledge, invited me to his wedding recently with this very thoughtful and sincerely personal message from a year back:

Hi Kathy, the moment you have been waiting for has arrived! HAHAHAHA!

Hope you can join us on 11 Jan next year. Don’t worry, there will be NO SHARKS FIN on the menu. I don’t want it and Violette doesn’t want it, and we won’t let us parents override us. But in the 0.000000001% chance that it changes because of circumstances beyond our control and against our wishes, I will certainly let you know early and we will totally understand. Rest assured that we both are very committed not to have it on our menu at all and this is a just-in-case (on the same level of ‘just-in-case the world ends’ type).

And then when I was having another moment of facing odds and difficulties in Lombok recently in March, dear Nelle, a fellow volunteer with the Children’s Cancer Foundation from a few years ago, sent this encouraging story my way too:

Hang in there, don’t give up. Things have a way of sorting themselves out even if they don’t work out the way u hope they wld. U’re doing good work. I’m reminded of that each time I see a ‘I’m FIN-ished’ poster on the streets. You’ve inspired me to stop eating shark’s fins too. So as your ‘convert’, I say, dear Kathy, don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.

And the stories don’t end there when sweet Rachel, a fellow participant of the Young Social Entrepreneurs Program 2013, sent me this story too:

By the way, today my colleague from Hong Kong asked me about Danea (my ckc spaniel) and Matt (Rachel’s little brother). I told her about them, and about you and The Dorsal Effect and sharks.. she said you were an amazing person. She told me that she would never eat sharks fin again. Just wanted to let you know.. this hasn’t been the first time. Even your story by itself inspires and changes people. Thanks for being everything that you are.. I always think the world needs more people like you.

And I get the sweetest sketch of a girl with a thresher shark from a very very dear sempai (senior) from my time in Japan on the JET program,Rebekah, who is the prettiest and most talented a photographer and artist whose works I have always always adored so so much until today, that I teared up seeing how much of her style was in this very beautiful sketch she sent my way, despite being tied up with her little toddler to mind most of the time now:

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And to one of the sweetest girls I have know from my days in SAJC, Soo Fang, who is a self made baker of the loveliest cupcakes ever conceivable, thank you for your kind and sincere offer although I don’t have the means to organize an event for The Dorsal Effect yet but that day shall come, thank you for this offer that also touched me so:

Hi Kathy, just want to drop you a quick note to say I love what you do at The Dorsal Effect! I’ll love to show my support by sponsoring 2 dozen shark cupcakes if you will let me , either for your event, personal celebration etc.. i think you totally deserve it! Its a little something from me to show my support for you.. and its the least and only thing i can do stuck at home with kids!

Don’t give up because i think what you are doing is really meaningful! Just drop me a msg when u need them and i’ll try my best accommodate!

So this journey has been tough no doubt, but truly, nothing short of amazing, with all these beautiful people from all the various parts of younger me’s life, that I have been blessed to cross paths with, and carry the friendship on with over the years. Your stories and offers have humbled me greatly and giving thanks and being in gratitude is something I will always choose in life because of all of you.
We’ll sleep the puffy eyes away and awake to fight more battles indeed. :) (Yes, I will press on, Bridgette and Sin Lei!!)
Also, special thanks Phil and Edgar for the puns on my meltdown, you guys never fail to put a cheer and laughter to my life with your jokes, as you keep reminding to always look at the lighter side of life with your winning witty ways. ?