This post originally appeared on The Reef-World Foundation website.

On the last day of June 2019, I made the decision to swap Bristol for South East Asia. I’d realised that, if I truly wanted to make a meaningful contribution to marine conservation, leaving my job would give me the dedicated time and headspace I needed to find a new challenge. Fast forward a year and I now work from Reef-World’s Philippines field office on Digital Strategy and supporting Green Fins implementation around the world – a dream come true!

Photo of a YBR125G motorbike being repaired

The Philippines is a fantastic place to be based: there are challenges to living here – including time zones (the other day I had a conference call at midnight!), keeping on top of bike maintenance, all administration being done in person, and a lack of traffic lights – but I’ve enjoyed learning how things work and finding solutions. Outside work, my spare time was dedicated to travelling around the island, hiking, scuba, and freediving – that is, until the impact of COVID-19 was felt around the world. My advice to thrive is to own a pair of breathable trekking shoes and obtain a motorbike license (not forgetting an international permit from the Post Office!) if you don’t have one already.

The Philippines entered a state of lockdown shortly after I arrived back from Egypt in March with each province implementing community quarantine measures to slow the spread. Tourists and other locally stranded individuals were, effectively, confined to Negros Oriental. Sea and airports were closed, a 9pm curfew was imposed, and only one household member was allowed to go out for essentials on specified days. I moved down the coastline from Dumaguete City to spend the lockdown in Dauin. Here, I could live with a group of friends and still be in close proximity to the ocean.

At the height of lockdown, the Philippines entered Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) which made ocean swimming off limits. It’s been frustrating to be so tantalisingly close to corals you can’t visit. However, hearing about the situation in the UK from friends and family back home made me appreciate the positive environment and relative stability we’ve enjoyed in Negros Oriental, despite the heavy restrictions.

From a professional perspective, the global pandemic has limited the Reef-World team’s ability to travel – effectively, pausing all capacity building fieldwork. It has also prevented our country partners from conducting their annual Green Fins assessments, a key tenet of the programme (there is every intention to restart those activities when it is safe to do so).

Before the pandemic, my time was evenly split between digital strategy and capacity building for Green Fins. The lockdown has provided a golden opportunity to focus on, and fast forward development of, digital tools to upscale Green Fins. My primary focus is building the Green Fins Global Hub: a first-of-its-kind digital membership system. The Hub will build on what we do on the ground (provide relevant environmental recommendations and solutions) by enabling us to access operators in harder-to-reach areas. By helping operators, no matter their location, reduce their environmental impact we can have a significant, positive impact on the sustainability of the sector globally. The project has just progressed to the finals of the Con X Tech Prize, Round 3 which is now in a 12-week prototyping period and we plan to begin software engineering later this year. It has been good to dedicate a chunk of time to this project and see a concept that Reef-World has wanted to develop for the last two years gradually come to life.

While the Philippines’ borders remain closed to visitors, internal restrictions are slowly beginning to lift; it is now possible to ocean swim for exercise and scuba diving is allowed provided social distancing and related protocols are followed. I am looking forward to a time when travel restrictions are completely lifted and we can restart fieldwork but, in the meantime, digital initiatives are keeping us fully occupied.

It’s more fun in the Philippines!