On 22nd June 2014 we have finally overcome the logistic constraints that have kept us from starting this project. This is the fourth time I am here and we finally get to survey and establish our new research site. On our preliminary visits we managed only to work on the planning and preparation on shore. Here at Merang Village we are offered a small hut by the beach for us to use as our research center. The house sits next to a homestead and is previously used as a store. Some work is needed to get it ready for our team. And once it is up and running it will bring more visitors to the home stay and the diving facility. This research center shall operate as a micro academy where the public can learn and gain experience on coral propagation. We begin with assessing the condition of the house and make notes of things we need to do to get it ready. Surprisingly after years of neglect it requires only small repairs. Few sheets of roofing, some work on the plumbing and basic furnishing is all it needed. Other necessity includes fortification of the house with locks and braces as there are history of theft in this area of the village. This research center will keep some instruments that we have worked hard to afford. One evening on our second visit we managed to gather few people from the village to help us move old things from the house into a storage cabin. Cleaning begin as soon as the house is empty.
The research center with broken roof (left) is next to Mantaray Lodge (right)
After cleaning the house and making list of what we need to get for the research center we continued on with planning. In the process we managed to cut most of the logistical issues down to minimum. Working with barely any budget at hand we have to gather enough materials from our home for the center. Soon it will be our home where we build our knowledge of the corals we propagated and make simple subjects for public education. Soon too, we will gaze across the field where the ocean and the horizon await us in all colors of the morning.
Sunrise in Merang Village
Beyond this and just minutes away is where all our work is done. Few rocky outcrops jutting from shallow sea bed once surrounded by healthy coral reef is now reduced to rubble. We may be here to do the impossible but no one knows if we never tried. And so we did. We went out there and establish our research site.
Setting line boundary for the coral nursery
We begin with assessing the conditions and make notes on best times for field work. We made a list of what we will need to take us out there without straining our time and resources. We studied research operations so that we can make the most out of our time. We studied the pros and cons of using existing services at the local jetty as compared to self operating from our shore. Every little thing that can save us time and money is considered as possibility. At this point we have no idea where our funds will come from except from our educational activity and collaborative ties we have with Sea Shepherd. We are determined to make it happen nonetheless.
The southeasterly wind is picking up that morning when we head out to the site. We hired a local boat to take us out to the site as ours is not ship shape enough to be launch. The diving facility is having some students the morning we set out leaving us with no weights to dive with. To make it happen we have to rotate the lead weights with the students during their surface intervals. We did. We are out here to do work and we will do it even if we have to wait in the choppy sea for leads. We now added another item to our list of equipment too. We vowed to return here again with our own weights next time.
This first trip out afford us with lessons on more operations constraint that we have yet to anticipate. We know now that there are a lot more than coral propagation that we have to deal with. We did what we came to do. With no time to waste we went on snorkel to locate potential nursery areas and measure the depths by free diving. Once a suitable site is found we mark its position in relation to the mooring line where the site later. By noon the students are out of the water and handed their weights to us for one hour. We sprung into action and get the nursery marked with line and spikes. While we are underwater our thoughts wandered to the surface visualizing the rocking boats and the poor students puking over the side. We must hurry.
We found suitable area in the rubbles to establish a Broodstock Nursery. It is a designated area in the middle of the coral propagation site where nubbins of corals are bred for propagation later when it has grown to suitable size. Broodstock nursery is established in areas where source of corals is scarce or non-existent. Broodstock nursery becomes the source of coral for the entire propagation program. The skills and knowledge of coral nursery management is part of the Ocean Quest coral propagation program. This nursery doubles as research site as well as training site for qualified trainers.
We begin with several species of corals at this site to environmental characteristics. Observations are also made at nearby coral reefs for its species diversity as well as the corals adaptation to surrounding environments. Through our research we know that corals are extremely picky on where they prefer to settle. These factors contribute to demise of large percentage of settling larvae besides predation. Species selection for broodstock nursery is no different. Trial observations are made to determine if the selected corals are suitable for the nursery, the type of substrate they are mounted on and environmental characteristics of the site. To fully understand this researchers must be at site for prolong periods for observations and data taking. The nursery also demands constant attention from the start a coral nursery.
We ended the day making fifty square meters of coral nursery. By then the weather is getting a little too choppy to continue. We did two of the three dives we planned. We learned now that this distance from shore we can make a hundred square meters of nursery a day if we are early and the process is not interrupted like today. We also knew that this site is going to be busy with our researchers and trainers in the near future. Their visits and their contribution to this reef as well as the community ashore are invaluable.
Broodstock consists of broken fragments found at nearby reefs.
Nursery area marked
As days spent at house grow longer we begin to study on ways to refine our research strategy. Distance, time, cost and security are the areas that we worked on. We begin to realize that the present setup for diving operation may not work well for us in three crucial areas – Distance, Time and Security. All of which reflects directly in increased cost. These are not acceptable to our research and it needed to be restructured before we can make it fully operational. Areas that we have to change include the research boat, point of embarkation, safety and security of our equipment and ultimately the overall operational cost of our research.
The research boat must be light enough to be deployed and retrieve from our shore. This eliminates all three constraints faced in the current operation settings. By having the boat launch from our beach we shaved several nautical miles of sea travel to the site, reducing prep time and energy spent on transferring equipment to the jetty several kilometers away. By bringing the boat up and keeping it in the research center we eliminate also the need for employing a care taker to keep the boat or outboard motor from being stolen at the jetty. To have the boat that meet our requirement we will have to design and build one ourselves. It has to be light for two reasons; first it can be deployed and retrieved everyday and kept on shore for safety. Second light boat can operate with smaller engine reducing fuel consumption and overall costs. The boat will take a week to build and work on it starts early July.
In addition to the coral propagation programs Ocean Quest also runs hands on workshop for would be researchers to learn scientific diving, small boat handling, underwater mapping and practical exercises on coral survey methodology.
Before we leave, we did more preparation for the house. Some data is gathered for our work. It is time to get it organized. The house just has its first piece of research tool – the whiteboard! We are beginning to equip this hut with scientific instruments and a computer. Mattresses and fans come next. Soon it will shelter coral researchers and trainers from around the country and eventually become home to many. We may not know where to find or how we are going to equip this facility. But as we learnt from the past we just have to believe in what we are doing and never give up. We simply gather our friends, set it up and go do it.
We sincerely believe that there are many talented but under privileged researchers out there. Well this is our message; we begin as underprivileged too and we still are. If you think that you have a good idea, you love the ocean and are committed, please come and talk to us. This academy may be a little hut by the beach but our school covers over two thirds of the world. Our school is called the Ocean.
Coral broodstock mounted on dead coral skeleton and it is kept up right by metal rod and tie wrap. When it reaches suitable size it will be propagated to the damaged reefs.