By Al Jayson Songcuan

We are truly living in a very challenging times with the pandemic spreading all across the globe. Many countries have issued different measures to try and control the spread of COVID-19 such as social distancing and self isolation, which made living our normal lives difficult for most of us. Many people lost their jobs because of business closures and community quarantine and while others are able to work remotely from home, it is more challenging for marine biologists like me to do the same. However, as my mentor always say: “In every crisis there is an opportunity” and I think that in this situation, it is exactly what we need need to find. This crisis may be a breather for the environment from all the anthropogenic impacts in the last decades but threats to coral reefs still persists. As marine biologists, it is our responsibility to do what we can and not take these restrictions as barriers in doing our work for the marine environment.

With all these restrictions, threats to coral reefs are not holding back and neither should we.

This is a very big adjustment for me. From being underwater almost every week to staying at home for three weeks straight now. Three months into my internship, we have to do everything remotely in compliance with the social distancing measures implemented by James Cook University, Townsville for the well-being of students and partner organizations. Thanks to the proactive approach of Reef Ecologic, my internship started sky high with lots of activities, fieldwork and opportunities. Now we are facing a different challenge, one that I take as an opportunity to enhance our capability of collaborating, communication and working remotely.

People perceive a marine biologist’s job glamorous because of all the pristine places we get the chance to visit, but that’s only half of the job. Our work also involves writing and data analysis. Unable to do field activities, we took this opportunity to look at previous reports, projects and data and explored its potential for publication. Many of us would agree when I say that we are, at some level, all guilty of ‘not having the time’ to analyse and write about some of the data we collect in the field especially with lots of field work and projects we are normally dealing with. Now that the tables have turned, with all the time we have in isolation, writing could be a good diversion to take away our minds off this pandemic. At the moment, our team is collaboratively writing two potential publications. By looking at previous data and writing about places such as Fitzroy Island in Cairns and Kanton Island in the Republic of Kiribati, we took ourselves in a mental trip to these wonderful islands in the Great Barrier Reef and in the Central Pacific.

Working remotely gave us a chance to enhance our communication skills and familiarize ourselves with the use of online platforms. It also started a discussion on the possibility of using these platforms for online webinars and workshops in the future. We also started exploring an interesting online platform to display projects and results which can also be used for citizen science to relay important information to the general public. Not only that we can expand our knowledge and skills but the information and citizen science we do will reach more people too.

Strengthening partnerships

It is very important for us to stay connected despite physical isolation. Everyone is somehow guilty of being ‘too busy’ in their everyday life to even say “Hi! How are you doing?” We can use this time to reconnect with colleagues, people close to us and those we haven’t spoken to for a long time. Culminating ideas with other colleagues for potential projects is also a great thing to do. Reaching out and communicating with other people will help us re-establish and strengthen connections. The tourism sector is also one of the major industries heavily hit by this global crisis. The tourism sector has always been a great partner to us supporting our activities and promoting our cause. Many businesses have shut down and some are at risk of not being able to recover when the dust settles. By simply reaching out and asking local businesses and partners things you can do to help goes a long way in showing support. In some places, renting out boats for private trips are still allowed, which could be a perfect way to keep our mental health in check.

Making a ripple: using social media to educate

I love posting dive pictures, fieldwork activities and interesting marine life. I consider my self fortunate to be in a lot of wonderful places we usually call ‘perks of the job’. However, not everyone has the opportunity to see the things we see and by sharing videos and photos of previous dives and fieldwork, I feel like I’m passing on the experience to many people highlighting the importance of our work for the environment. This is exactly the opportunity this crisis gives us. Not allowed to go outside and nothing much to do at home, a lot of people are spending most of their time in social media like never before. This pandemic released the inner creativity of lots of people posting creative photos and videos to kill time. Stories of people hiking indoors, doing scuba in a bath tub, roof top dinner dates, and many others are all over social media lately. While a lot of people see it as a distraction and others are essentially living in it, as marine biologist, I’d rather see it as a tool to spread useful information and advocate about the marine life.

Just recently, I started a little citizen science on social media campaign to make self isolation and community quarantine a little more fun and informative. With all the attention social media platforms are getting lately, and I thought that it would be a perfect opportunity to educate by sharing interesting marine themed photos and videos By doing so, we can also help increase awareness and appreciation of people for the marine environment. So I posted a video of a school of bigeye trevallies with a little trivia caption and tagged a couple of colleagues challenging them to do the same.

We don’t have to be in the field to make a difference, at difficult times like these, we can still be marine biologist from home.

Just in the course of 2 days, I was amazed by the results. I was really happy that people are taking up the challenge and their posts are reaching a lot of other people on social media. It was also a great opportunity to showcase their wonderful photos they never got the time to share before, with the added benefit of giving out new information and taking people’s minds off this stressful times even for just a scroll of a thumb. These are just small things we can do that add up to something bigger and I would also take this opportunity and challenge you to do the same. These little things we do matter in the grand scale of things.

A friendly reminder from our fish friends: Stay safe, stay at home.