Caring about coral reefs

Mabel Sieh
Mabel Sieh |

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Photo: Li Po Chun

Students from around the world learn to protect marine life in a conservation project, writes Mabel Sieh

Diving doesn't usually appear on a school curriculum. But when Alice Bean and Yuka Takemon came to study in Hong Kong, they were offered the chance to learn to dive, and to put their new skills to good use in marine conservation.

Both teenagers are in their second year of the International Baccalaureate diploma programme at Li Po Chun United World College in Sha Tin. With a team of 24 fellow student 'coral monitors', they go diving in Hoi Ha Wan to measure coral size, check its condition and record any marine life they see.

All the data they gather is sent to international conservation groups such as Reef Check, Coral Watch and WWF, and to Hong Kong's Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department.

'The best thing I've ever seen in Hong Kong waters was an octopus,' says Alice, who comes from Cambridge, Britain. 'Nobody would believe me because it was so rare to see it in Hong Kong.'

Yuka, on the other hand, is not as lucky. 'In Hong Kong, we only get to see very small fishes and mostly damaged corals or 'rocks' because of their white colour,' the Japanese girl from Chiba says. 'One of the causes of damaged corals is the rising water temperature. This makes the algae that lives in the polyps of the corals secrete toxins. Eventually the polyps will expel the algae from their bodies and die. This makes the coral go white, a process known as coral bleaching.'

Li Po Chun students have been monitoring coral since 1994. Linda Olson, an English teacher and project leader, says the programme was set up to 'map' the Hoi Ha Wan marine park and identify coral sites.

Olson says students are selected for participation through a rigorous process, including a swimming test and an interview. In the first year, they are trained by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors to become qualified divers and then undergo marine identification and survey training in the Philippines.

Starting from the second year, they collect data and conduct annual reef checks.

'Our main function is data collection, but perhaps more importantly is building marine awareness among young people,' Olson says.

'Some of our students have become marine biologists [after they graduated from the university] while others work in different areas of conservation. We hope all of them will become activists for the environment.'

Yuka and Alice have developed a great interest in protecting marine life from their hands-on experience. 'When I was living in Japan, I had fish every day,' Yuka says. 'Eating fish is part of our tradition. But coming to Hong Kong and learning about marine life has changed how I view this tradition.'

Alice says: 'When I go back to the UK, I will continue to dive and be involved in marine conservation.'

And the advice from both girls is: don't eat shark's fin soup!

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