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Feeding the Soul

"I write not as an expert in marine conservation (because I am not) but as a person who was once a child not too long ago. I want to share with you my feelings about conserving our marine environment.

"I grew up in the city, but I consider my self a taga-baybayon (coastal dweller) at heart. My siblings and I have very fond memories of life by the sea as we spent most of our childhood summers in Baclayon. This is a coastal town in Bohol, where my mother grew up. It is also the mainland town right across Pamilacan Island, now controversial for its whale shark-hunting practices. My great, great grandparents had a big old house right beside the sea, with only the huge and ancient mangroves, pagatpatan, standing between them and the vast blue yonder.

"Every day of many summers (except the days of the Holy week, when outings at sea were forbidden), we would go to the shore with cousins and watch those little colorful agokoy (crabs) as they scampered on the sand. The song "Si Filemon" was very real to us then because we knew what tambasakan (mudskippers) were and constantly saw them skipping about in the mud.

"We went out to shore at low tide to go panginhas (gleaning) with the local folk; enjoyed slurping the soup and eggs of sinugbang swaki (grilled sea urchin); cried and sighed with relief when, after stepping on tuyom (that type of sea urchin which is black and has very long spines), someone would pee on the spine imbedded on a foot and the spine would melt in front of our eyes. Fish were abundant then, as were shells, corals and many other fascinating sea creatures.

"Truly, summers by the shore of Baclayon were magical when I was a young child.

"Now I am a mother. One of the very first words my son uttered, besides "mama" and "papa", was "dadat" (sea). My son loves the sea, and all the creatures that go with it, so we try to bring him to the dagat (sea) as often as we can.

"Unfortunately, the marine life is not as abundant as it was when I was younger (although, as I now recall, the old folks also said the same thing when I was a child). The most common creature we now see when we go panginhas on the shores of Dumanjug, my husband's hometown, are umang (hermit crabs). And one has to go far, far from the shore to find anything at all. The stones have been turned and exposed too often and most times one will only find sea spiders underneath.

"Dolphin and whale sightings, once common during those summer days as we crossed the sea from Cebu to Bohol, are now rare. The most abundant display of live fishes my son has seen is that at the pet shop in the mall, the most recent starfishes are the ones on display in souvenir shops, now dry and without life, and the only big fishes he will see, unless we take the whale sighting tours in Bais, are those on posters or in the shows of the Discovery and National Geographic channels.

"All these point to the alarming fact that we humans have depleted and now threaten to irreversibly destroy our marine resources. That we, who are responsible for this negligence, have the obligation to make amends.
And so we have become a little more vigilant about the environment.

We are now conscious of the 3R's: reduce, reuse and recycle. We have "I Love the Ocean" movements. And, along the coast of Baclayon and many other areas, both children and adults have planted mangroves which have now grown taller and more lush than at any time in recent memory. My mother has even found the strength to call Bantay Dagat (citizens' sea patrol) to help drive away the people cutting the mangroves behind our house.

"And these efforts, although not enough, have gained fruit. Last summer, my mother called to say, "Namalik na ang mga isda!" (The fish are back!). They had woke up one morning to find the mangroves behind our house abounding in fish fry. Now we see more crabs and hear more bird sounds, and the blue kingfishers have come back!

"Only recently, I watched a show featuring the efforts of the Pollilio folk in Quezon Province to protect their sea. They, too, say, "Bumalik na ang mga isda." (The fish are back.)

(Continued below)

"We have begun conserving the environment to ultimately protect ourselves. In the course of pursuing this selfish motive of self-preservation, we have become more humble. We now acknowledge that we are but a part of this great balance of life on earth and that nature will not always be there to serve us. Nature, in fact, has denied us its bounty when we became too selfish and greedy. We know, however, that Nature can be generous for as long as we find the courage to care.

"I believe we must conserve the environment not only to save ourselves but also to give meaning to our existence. By the mere act of caring, we make life more meaningful, not only because we assure the survival of the next generations, but also because we get to feed our souls.

"Feeding the soul is having good childhood memories of panginhas by the shore; snorkeling in the waters of Apo Island where clown fish peck at your mask and schools of fish surround you; or wading in the shallow waters of Olango Island to watch flocks of birds feeding in the vast sandflat.

"Feeding the soul is caring enough to want to let your children and their children experience for themselves equally happy days by the sea.

"Feeding the soul is hearing stories of old times when the sea was both generous and selfish. It is retelling the stories that keep animals long made extinct alive in our minds. The folk tales about duyong (sea cows) in Lao-ang, Samar are not mere myths but stories of dugong that once lived in the sea of Samar. The dugong has remained real to us, if only as part of Waray mythology.

"Feeding the soul is remembering your tears falling as you listened behind tall walls to a dolphin crying out as it is transported on a tricycle to market. It is keeping alive your intense desire to save it, throwing aside your feeling of helplessness, and remaining true to your vow to make that positive difference when you finally can."

- Estela Ocampo-Fernandez
Philippine Mother and Concerned Citizen

This essay originally appeared in Overseas, a magazine published in the Philippines by oneocean.org

Photographs taken on Palawan by Paolo Dizon (Philippines).


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