My Month On An Island

By Leandra Rhodes
March 23, 2019

In 2015, I was lucky enough to spend a month volunteering with a marine conservation project in Cambodia. Most days, we were scuba diving three times a day, every day. This meant gearing up in wet suits and oxygen tanks three separate times. This meant spending hours breathing through a regulator. This meant bathing in sea water and dealing with the tangled mess of hair later. 

This was my heaven. 

I worked alongside some incredible people who were all focused on the same goal: conserving the oceans. While diving, we would split into groups to focus on different aspects: monitoring coral bleaching trends, evaluating species population patterns, and collecting debris and nets from the corals or floating in the water. No matter how overwhelming the idea of “saving the oceans” might have seemed (and still seems now), our group worked daily to make even a small difference and to have an amazing experience along the way. 

This project was based on the (small) island of Koh Sdach, or King Island (a little counter-intuitive). It took me 3 flights and 30 hours to get to Phnom Penh, then an 8-hour bus and a 15-minute boat ride to get to Koh Sdach.

Our project home base was built over the water, extending past the shore and opening up into the dock. You could see the ocean through cracks in the floor boards, and our group would eat meals with our legs dangling off the edge. The roof was made of tin that would ring for hours when it rained. The internet connection was terrible and there were never enough fans to go around.

I wish I could have stayed there forever. 

If the dock was the “main entrance” to the base, then the washrooms were on land “out back”. The showers were fed by a fresh-water supply on the island that was replenished daily by boat. Each home had several barrels that inhabitants filled using the fresh-water supply, saving up for the inevitable event when the boat missed a day. If you had to shower on a day that the boat didn’t come, then you did so with a cup and one of those barrels. Those barrels were also used to flush the toilets, and toilets for any home along the shoreline emptied directly into the ocean. You did not want to go for swim just off the dock…

In addition to the daily dives, our group was the go-to for local fishermen who had accidentally caught sea turtles or other creatures in their nets. If released through “proper channels”, then these animals would often be kept for days. Instead, our group would take them out and release them immediately.

Our group was also known for beach cleanups, and the subsequent parade of trash bags across the island. I remember one beach cleanup distinctly, one that took place on a particularly hot and sweaty day. Our group spent an entire afternoon collecting dozens of bags of trash sorted into plastics, glass, and Styrofoam. We collected everything from Styrofoam food containers to plastic straws, glass bottles to tin cans, batteries to an industrial-sized fluorescent light bulb. Hours later, sun burnt and dehydrated, most of us were pretty depressed, especially those of us who had a few of these beach cleanups under their belts. Those volunteers knew that no matter how much debris we collected from the beach that day, the ocean would kick back more trash the next; trash that had been tossed into the ocean by local inhabitants and trash from distant places that had been pushed along by ocean currents.

At some point, we called it. With more trash bags then we could easily carry, we started the trek across the island. Back at base, most of the trash was stored until it could be burned. Koh Sdach has no proper trash collection or disposal system to date, and trash burning is still common practice [1]. 

Photo of that specific beach cleanup, from
https://www.projects-abroad.ca/volunteer-projects/conservation-and-environment/diving-and-marine-conservation/volunteer-cambodia/

Regardless of the pessimism surrounding these beach cleanups, this was easily one of the best experiences of my life. It also made me very aware of marine pollution and very keen to continuously fight against it. I am happy to know that projects like this exist all over the world, and that there will always be people willing to contribute to them. 

Unless specified, all photos are by Leandra Rhodes.

[1] https://docs.projects-abroad.ca/us/conservation-management-plan/data-and-reports/cambodia/cambodia-marine-conservation-management-plan.pdf

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