Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Tropical Paradise

The post I had written for today was mostly dealing with the frustrations I have with one particular group, but as you should only post on the internet what you would want those people to read I haven't actually typed any of that entry, it is available on email request though! Besides you guys don't really want to hear about those things anyway, so here as some fun stories from tropical paradise.
Now I'm allowed in the water it has changed the whole dynamic for me here. I'm much happier for being able to go to the reef every day and I think I enjoy it more and more each time. There's something so exciting every time I go out because I notice new species, new behaviours and new details that weren't there before. In addition Bob, my supervisor from A Rocha UK, has come down for a few weeks to see how I'm doing and help me move forward. As a result I'm doing a lot of new things, like underwater transects and quadrants, which are darn sight harder in the water than on land!
I've also spread out and visited a lot more sites recently, including the reef crest, a good 2km swim from the beach. This beautiful sand bar marks the edge of the reef lagoon where big oceanic waves crash and the reef slopes gently into the inky depths, where coral and colour cease to be. Just off the reef crest is a very different dynamic to in the lagoon, with cooler and clearer water and obviously much rougher. As a result the fish species are quite different and so it was very exciting to stumble on a whole community of fish I didn't know.
Today Bob and I did a trip around a large portion of the park looking for patch reefs, as much of the park area isn't even mapped. Within this search we also went outside the park to the south over a channel leading from Mida Creek, where tons of water flows in rapid currents on the daily tides in and out the creek. On the other side of this current was an amazing patch reef with the best coral growth I'd ever seen (of course based on only Kenya and Costa Rica). There were much fewer fish than in the park, so fishing was taking its toll, but coral cover was much higher. This shouldn't be, because fish are theoretically supposed to prevent coral from being over grown by algae, so potentially something interesting is going on here, which people haven't studied yet! I certainly want to, just so I can spend time around those patch reefs. Stunning!
So in summary I'm becoming slightly addicted to the reef. The beautiful clusters of Acropora, the dainty butterfly fish and the confusing array of outrageously coloured wrasse. The other day I saw a baby angelfish, which have completely different markings to their parents and are even more outstanding than colourful elders. Even though I've seen them before, I was just as amazed by something as beautiful and, to my human sentiment, as precious as this little guy as the first time I saw one.  
Baby Emperor Angelfish (Pomacanthus imperator)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Way Forward

Last week I spent at the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association (WIOMSA) conference in Mombasa. The north part of Mombasa is certainly posh. There are supermarkets bigger than anything in the UK, cinemas, posh bars, flower-lined tarmac roads and impressive houses for about 10-miles stretching north of the city. Whereas in Kasiyani, water is carried for miles to thirsty homes, there it is sprinkled on lawns and golf courses. Going from one extreme to the other was a bit crazy. Its just confusing knowing what your normal point of reference is.
The conference was hosted in the poshest 5* hotel on the Kenyan coast although I stayed in a backpackers a couple of miles away I ate lunch there. There were things I just never see in Kenya like olives, pesto and chocolate cake! It was very cool.
Most importantly though, the conference had 500 delegates from Kenya to South Africa and east to Madagascar, Seychelles, Reunion, Comoros etc. all conveniently meeting effectively on my doorstep to talk about a wide range of fascinating marine ideas. I heard some great talks and got excited by a bunch of new ideas of how to move forward with research e.g. Locally Managed Marine Reserves by local fishermen to coral genetic marks and connectivity between reefs. It was stimulating and great fun to be really nerdy for a week.
A big debate raged in my head all week though, about an issue that I've been aware for a while, but was really brought to a point. I've always been suspicious of academia, e.g. how someone can be paid to look at the social interactions of crabs on a mud flat I do not know. How these people study the crabs next to hungry kids fishing for little silverfish boggles my mind. However, most of the talks at the conference did have practical implications, like plenty of socio-economic studies of poverty and marine resources to understanding the impacts of global warming on coral survival. Nevertheless as I have seen in the Isles of Scilly and with Kenya Wildlife Services, very little of this information reaches conservation on the ground. The actual impact of studies is minimal, so how are they any more important than to read about how crabs make friends?
I have spent the last four years studying and pursuing a career in conservation biology because I wanted to conserve nature, in this case saving coral. To consider that any study I did would be largely irrelevant to this goal was a bit shocking really and that week I even considered forgetting being a scientist and trying a career where I could have more impact. Of course data are a truth which is hard to argue with, so you can prove to people what is happening and demonstrate how it works, but it feels like that truth is not reaching the people who need it to change things. Maybe we need less information collection in the world and more information dissemination. For example, plenty of people understand the dynamics of coral fish ecology and how susceptible they are to overfishing, but none of those people actually are involved with fishing. The people fishing think there are less fish than 20 years ago because they are hiding or Allah wills it so.
There are plenty of great NGOs in the world, including A Rocha who are relaying conservation to people. Somewhere like A Rocha research and practical impact are rolled together in many projects, under one organisation on a local level. At the moment this is the best model I can see. Hopefully in a few years time I will have a great PhD, but also leave healthy coral behind as well.
In other news my permits are through, but I really don't want to celebrate yet it feels too premature! There's certainly a big weight off my heart though. I've had a blissful weekend before reporting to the KWS early Monday morning. On Saturday Heidi and I walked into Watamu for our traditional Saturday morning ice-cream. In the afternoon we played on the beach with Ivy, Belinda's eldest daughter and friends. We jumped waves, dug holes and pretended to be sea monsters. It really reminded me of beach holidays when I was a kid. I don't think I've had fun on a beach like that for ages. To top off a fantastic day we had a bonfire and nyama choma (grilled meat) for Heidi's birthday. Lots of people came, there was a guitar and even night swimming under a bright moon. It was a really perfect day

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

High and Dry

No sooner had I wrote that positive entry than my permits were suspended for some unknown bureaucratic or political reason. Last week I managed to fill time with data entry and other little tasks, but was plagued by growing frustration and not to mention heavy rainfall and long periods without power, (apparently rain causes transformers to short). On Thursday I woke up to torrential rain, no permits and no power, so not even my computer worked. Some how I managed to fill the time, but on Friday morning I awoke to torrential rain, no permits and still no power. What is the point!?
Over the weekend some cool guests showed up including a guy called Jeff who is friends with Heidi, a researcher working from A Rocha at the moment. He was leaving on Tuesday, so I decided if nothing was sorted by then I would go with him for a little safari and trip around. We headed to Mombasa and spent the first night there hanging out in the old town and doing some shopping. On Wednesday we travelled up country to where he was working in Kamba land about 3 hours east of Nairobi on the Western edge of Tsavo East.
Its a really poor area up there. No tourism or industry, just farms of barren red earth, waiting for the rain, which has so far only blessed the coast. Its the kind of place where no one has ever seen a Mzungu, so I attracted a lot of attention where ever I went. Even the prices for piki-pikis (motorbike taxi) are lower than the coast, despite that petrol is the same price everywhere, showing how much poorer people are and how little they live on. I don't know how people make any money, never mind the $1 a day statistic most of them probably fall in.
The place where I stayed in Kasiyani was probably the wealthiest apartments in the place for people like the school teacher opposite. The “apartment” is a single 3mx3m room with corrugated iron roof and cement floor. There are communal long-drops and washrooms. All water comes from a single tap in the compound when it works, or from the tap in the village when it doesn't. We take bucket baths and water is always on the mind as a precious resource. We are the lucky ones, some people on the shambas (farm land) have to walk several kilometres to the nearest water point an then somehow carry the 20 litre containers, I struggled with across our courtyard, back to their homes.
Standing on koppie in Kamba country
Stay tuned for updates from my time in Mombasa at the marine conference. I'm quite behind in writing, but lots of cool stuff happened when I got back down to the coast.