MANILA – How can Filipinos protect the country's marine riches when the seas stir only apathy and fear in some? Marine conservation advocate Anna Oposa seeks to narrow this emotional gap in the hopes that knowledge of the seas would turn to love and a desire to protect.
“You know I don't even remember my first snorkeling experience or the first time I was ever in the sea because bata pa lang ako (I was too young),” Oposa said when asked about the moment she fell in love with marine life. “I remember it through photos.”
“I have photos of me as a kid swimming in Bantayan Island, building sandcastles or burying my cousins in sand. It was just so part of my life that I didn't see it as extraordinary,” she told ABS-CBN News.
Oposa went on to major in English Studies at University of the Philippines in Diliman. But shortly before her college graduation in 2011, she learned about a how a coral reef area 5 times the size of Metro Manila was destroyed by smugglers and poachers.
This drove her to start Save Philippine Seas, an organization that advocates for marine conservation by educating people about the importance of the ocean.
Oposa said marine conservation education in the Philippines was lacking when she started SPS.
“Malaki yung gap on experiential learning opportunities. When we go to campaigns or implement projects, marami pa ring Pilipino na takot sa dagat and to me, that is scandalous, knowing that we are the second largest archipelago in the world,” she said.
(There is a huge gap on experiential learning opportunities... So many Filipinos are still afraid of the ocean.)
“Generally, Filipinos feel disconnected to our ocean or to our seas,” she noted. “So when we have programs on like, let's say, snorkeling or marine conservation programs, lagi naming tinatanong yung audience namin, ‘Sino dito ang first time mag-snorkel? Sino dito ang first time first time sa dagat?’”
(We always ask our audience, 'Who here is snorkeling for the first time? Who is going into the water for the first time?')
“And somewhere between 70 to 90 percent of our audience will say, yes, it's our first time to be in the ocean or in the marine space. So it's hard to advocate for marine conservation if there's this emotional disconnect between ourselves and the sea,” she said.
Oposa said Save Philippine Seas is trying to change this situation by letting people see the wonders of Philippine marine life for themselves.
“Because iba yung natututo ka while you watch documentaries or you listen to podcasts or you see pictures in books or on the web, pero iba rin yung pakiramdam na nakikita mo yung isda, yung basura, yung plastic sa dagat. It stirs a different kind of response in you,” she added.
(It's a different when you see for yourself the fish, the trash, the plastic in the ocean.)
Oposa's organization has launched the Sea and Earth Advocates (SEA) Camp, an intensive program for 18 to 23-year-olds that aims to build a network of marine conservationists in Southeast Asia.
The group also leads a Waste Watchers program to reduce single-use plastics at the source, and runs the Shark Shelter Project to protect thresher sharks found near the Monad Shoal.
In 2022, Oposa was named one of The Outstanding Women in the Nation’s Service for her work with marine ecology conservation.
The “Chief Mermaid” of Save Philippine Seas said her background in musical theater greatly helped her work in saving the ocean.
“There's a lot of data and a lot of science that have been generated by art scientists and researchers. But to be able to reach a wider audience, we need to infuse it with stories. We need to make it relatable. And Dr. Brene Brown said that stories are just data with soul,” she noted.
“Because when we are able to translate or transform data into stories mas naka-capture natin yung puso ng tao, and especially in a country like the Philippines, we love telling stories, mahilig tayo sa mga kwento, mahilig tayo maging Marites. So it helps a lot when you transform information into stories.”
(When we are able to translate or transform data into stories, we capture people's hearts better, and especially in a country like the Philippines, we love telling stories.)
Oposa said she is lucky to count Mano Amiga Academy founder Lynn Pinugu, actress and women empowerment advocate Bianca Gonzales, and Anthill Fabric co-founder Anya Lim among her closest friends in the development sector.
“When I have a roadblock and I need advice on how to proceed, I consult them and I say, we have this joke or we have this ongoing internal hashtag called #AsATrueFriend. So I asked them, as a true friend, what do you think I should do?” she said.
“There's this meme on Instagram that behind every successful woman is a group of women reviewing her emails, parang gano’n, ‘tas tawang-tawa kami kasi sobrang totoo siya (we were laughing because it is so true), at least in our case,” she added.
In her years working in maritime conservation, Oposa said she observed that compared to men, women “tend to be more nurturing in terms of the emotional wellbeing of the communities and the team that we work with,” she said.
This trait is important when working in a field that ultimately aims to take care of people.
“We have to realize that leaders are humans. Marine conservation advocates are humans. And we can't just focus on the work kasi buong tao tayo. And when we have programs, especially for leadership, we have this check in, well-being wheel…because we have to adjust based on where people are at,” she explained.
“And you can't do that if you're not open, honest, if you're not expressive. And the ability to adjust to how people are feeling at that time comes with being nurturing... I think a lot of marine conservationists start wanting to protect the sea, and in the end, we realize that it's about the people who are managing the sea.”
Oposa said the Philippines still has a long way to go when it comes to protecting the ocean.
“Ang dami-dami na nating mga batas (we have so many laws), we have the solidarity Management Act, the Fisheries Code, Clean Water, Clean Air [Acts]... But compliance to these laws is still very low.”
She added, however, that those who want to help in their work need not necessarily come from the development sector.
“We need more people in different spaces, whether it's in corporation, in mining, in fuel, in telecom, in fast-moving consumer goods. We need to have advocates in all fields so that we can solve this issue,” Oposa said.
“When we talk about about marine conservation, hindi naman ito focusing on the sea or the animals or the plants in the sea. It's also about infrastructure and laws and waste and packaging and ang dami-daming fields and stakeholders na kailangan na nasa—who have to be in this,” she stressed.
(This is not just about focusing on the sea or the animals or the plants in the sea. There are so many fields and stakeholders who have to be in this)
This article is part of the Amazing Women series of ABS-CBN News this month of March, featuring stories of select women who are making a mark in their respective fields and advocacies. March is National Women's Month in the Philippines.