Saturday 28th of July and the normal MCP Saturday routine would have to hold off for one more week. This Saturday would start earlier and more frantically than most. By 7am, three of MCP’s reef monitoring tea
ms would board a truck fitted with as many tanks as reasonably possible. The purpose; a reef health assessment expedition bound for one of the largest MPA’s in Bais (around 60 hectares), located roughly three hours north of MCP’s base. With a team of two assessors each respectively assigned to surveying either fish, substrate or invertebrates, we set out to assess the entire MPA across three notable depth ranges (5-9m, 10-14m, 15-19m). Based on MCP’s current survey methodology for analyzing reef health, this would mean a collective total of seventy-two surveys covering fish, substrate and invertebrates. With nine of the seventy-two surveys to be conducted outside the MPA, we could then provide a broad comparison that may reflect the effectiveness of the MPA. With a time schedule of under one week, it was clear that an efficient and predetermined plan would be needed to meet this demand. By all means this was a large task assigned to us by the Bais local government and BFAR, however after a few hours of strategic brainstorming between the survey teams and MCP staff, we knew it was every bit possible.
If all went according to plan, on Saturday afternoon we would do a short overview dive of the reef. This would hopefully give us a gauge of what we could expect in the following days in terms of underwater current, which species of fish, substrate or invertebrates may be useful to include in surveys, and what the depth profile of the reef looked like. A recon mission of sorts to enable us a more educated foundation to base our dive plans upon. The following two days each team diving team would dive a total of seven times, completing three surveys per dive.
Awaiting for us in Bais on Saturday afternoon, was a member of the local government and Bantay Dagat (MPA enforcement authority). Behind him, a wooden stilted, three story house overlooking the tidal flats and mangrove forests to the east of Bais. Our home for the next four days. Needless to say, there were no complaints among the team about our accommodation. If we needed any more motivation, the view alone was all the fuel we needed to face the impending physical exhaustion of the busy days ahead. Brimming with enthusiasm to get the assignment underway, we set out that afternoon as planned onto two boats to conduct our initial dive site inspection. The bathymetry showed a ridge declining fairly rapidly from shallow to deep running almost parallel to shore almost the entire distance of the MPA. This was good news for us as it allowed us to minimise the distance between the transects at different survey depth ranges. In essence, we would have to swim less and use less air to conduct the same amount of surveys.
Returning home to a feast prepared by the staff, it was looking like the week ahead was going to be an experience none of us would forget.
The next few days we would carry out our surveys, one dive at a time, just as planned. Lunches on the mangrove boardwalk sitting hundreds of meters out to sea without a soul in sight each day, made even the most enthusiastic divers among us question their motivation for getting back in the water. Each day held unexpected challenges that together we would overcome and learn from, making the next day’s operations smoother. It was a learning process for all of us. But in just three days, the expedition was complete. We had succeeded in achieving what we had set out to do, conduct an entire MPA assessment for an entire season, in just four days. All exhausted, we piled ourselves back onto the back of the truck and set off back to base. A successful mission, and the first of many more to come.