Deep Water, Horizons: Artificial Reef Communities, Above and Below the Water Line
Lot 3480, Smpg 170, Jln Serasa, Muara, BT1728, BSB, Brunei
To the members of the Watson Fellowship Committee:
Hello from Brunei Darussalam! My project in Brunei is structurally very different from what it was in Thailand. That was intentional: while I could have hopped from one coral restoration course to the next, the reality of artificial reefs is that coral grows where you wouldn’t expect. All the same, it’s a surprising reality. Over the course of this year I’m interviewing and engaging the daily practices of communities that do coral conservation and restoration work, the people that live with artificial reefs.
In Thailand, I showed up every day and gained marine conservation skills, had ample opportunity for photographs, and easy, direct access to relevant people I could interview. In Brunei, my direct community is a community of divers, but not a community of conservationists. I meet relevant people through the dive shop occasionally, but rely far more on email and solo exploration to get to know this part of the world. I made a challenge for myself in Brunei, intentionally, because I really have to hunt for contacts. My work with the dive shop gets me underwater but it doesn’t tell the story for me. I’m far more insecure about the “success” of each day, but also far more proud of the successes when they come. In Thailand every day was a success because the project was right in front of my face. Sometimes I have to look at my project summary to remind myself that I’m doing what I set out to do. It’s easy to forget what you accomplished the day before when the world and its multitudes are in front of you offering opportunity.
Brunei is hard, and maybe that’s why it’s grown on me so much. It’s a Muslim sultanate of 400,000 people under Sharia law boiling at the equator, primarily supported by its oil and gas production. I’m one of two white women for at least five kilometers. Exercise has been its own adventure as I make my way to jungle paths, keeping my eyes forward while men press their noses to the window and turn their heads as they drive by. Without a car of my own I end up relying on my friends and dive buddies more than I’d prefer
My immediate community here is a (for me, complicated) blend of expats and locals, all milling around the dive shop where I volunteer. Dive shops tend to be filled with either tourists or expats or elite locals, though I found exception in Thailand and Brunei both. Four days a week I spend at Poni Divers, teaching scuba in exchange for free dives at my research site, the Oil Rig Wreck. It was sunk by Shell in 2004 as artificial reef substrate, and I want to know why and how it was sunk, and assess the reef 11 years later. I’ve got photos, transect studies, and report research projects all in the works. Interviews are more difficult to get than I anticipated, in part because Shell has a pretty tight hold on its PR, and I’m trying to find other ways to address my questions. The Rigs-to-Reef program is controversial, not least because it’s hard to tell if it’s just a cheap way for oil companies to dispose of decommissioned rigs and still have a good local reputation. Shell has an excellent local reputation.
I hit my first truly massive roadblock before I left the US, which brought me ultimately to Thailand. Jason deCaires Taylor, the artist who’d agreed to work with me for around a month in Lanzarote, backed out and suggested we reschedule. So I fumbled and found the New Heaven Restoration and Conservation program on Koh Tao, a speck on an island in the Gulf of Thailand. By the time I left Koh Tao, Thailand, in October, I recognized this as a stroke of remarkable good luck. I dove often, welded my own artificial reef, interviewed over 20 people affiliated with the program. I got a couple injuries and dealt with them. I saw successful and unsuccessful restoration projects, the variable outcomes of good intent. I had a schedule with room for my own project explorations, and lived with kind people. It was a really productive time, and I think one of my first mistakes of this year was leaving two weeks before the rest of the conservation team did – not too big of a mistake though. (Another mistake was that I got stuck with a not-so-great underwater camera and need to figure out if I have room to trade up in my budget. It’s very frustrating.) While I hope to work with Taylor or at least explore his underwater artworks at the end of June 2016, Koh Tao was the landing pad I needed after a long summer and a long year.
Try as I might to just immerse myself in living my project, though, I still have a big concern with making. I’ve always needed to have my hands in the mud, often literally, to feel positive about my being in a specific place. I often have to remind myself of what I’ve already done, like blogging and photography. I’ll be co-authoring a paper on coral conservation this winter, and have submitted an abstract for a solo publication in the spring. I’ve been working on a watercolor series for myself, but I’m daydreaming about children’s books and art books. I want to have a product, and I will. I’m reconnecting with artistic expression and visual documentation (watercolors, music, and writing are what I have access to right now), which is as spiritually rewarding as it is productive. I then remind myself, again, that I’ve already had my hands on coral and rope, built my own artificial reef structures, and taught scuba classes in the past three months. Making is happening.
But making isn’t always material. A month into my time on Koh Tao I signed up for PADI’s Instructor Development Course so I could teach scuba. I’m tired of the skill only being accessible to foreigners with financial resources as a recreational sport when scuba is also a tool. It’s a tool for education and conservation. It can enable greater local understanding of the environment locals live with, as opposed to visit. Idealism aside, it also enables me to do labor exchanges at shops in exchange for free diving and sometimes discounts on housing. By the time I leave Brunei it’ll have paid for itself in dives and housing. More importantly, I think I can use it as a tool for social change.
Teaching scuba diving is an increasingly rewarding practice. I integrate coral conservation lectures into every dive briefing, get to encourage folks to pursue marine biology or just curiosity, and give people a new technical skill. I work with kids, we confront fears together. I’m helping my current dive shop re-evaluate sustainable business practices. Though I’m seeing the dark side of scuba diving more than ever before (being a dive instructor is infinitely less demeaning than the process of becoming a dive instructor was), I’m also more aware of the power of this tool. I’m the best diver I’ve been, and I’m learning from the mistakes I make.
I’m looking forward to Fiji. It’s where some of the first restoration projects got international media attention, but have faltered as NGOs pull out and communities are left to maintain sites. I have a homestay through holidays and birthdays. I want to commit to three months there – the longest I’ll stay anywhere this year. From there, I think China, Japan and (fingers crossed) Lanzarote will round out the year. Pipe dreams are Kiribati and the Seychelles, the Philippines if they clear the travel warning list. Coral restoration projects are, for better or for worse, increasingly common across the world, and I’ve already had to shut down impulses to jet off to some small island in the name of my budget.
Sometimes I just want to buy all my tickets in advance, book everything and just ride my way to August 2nd. But 9 months is a long time, and I don’t want to deny myself the chance to explore. Exploration with over 50 pounds of scuba gear is a real challenge. Finding activities in isolated tropical towns can be difficult, so every time I have a layover in a city I cram urbanism into my life and sometimes it makes my head spin. I think these are productive tensions.
It’s evening here in Brunei. Monsoons come every night, and I can hear rumbles of one in the distance now. My homestay overlooks a patch of jungle in a little rural corner of this truly tiny equatorial nation, now backlit by the orange clouds over Bandar Seri Begawan. Sunsets. Dogs. Croaking frogs. All of these things gone or quiet now as the storm comes.
I look forward to your feedback, truly. Here’s to a year of productive tensions,