Unfortunately, this project does not exist anymore.
On a small remote island in Papua New Guinea (PNG) something wonderful has started. Enthusiastic scuba divers and marine conservationists are building up a project to protect mantas and support the local community. I was lucky enough to visit during a recent trip to Milne Bay in PNG and I personally absolutely loved the project as it is the perfect balance between marine conservation and working with the local community.
Arriving in paradise
Jumping off the dinghy onto the white sandy beach I was warmly welcomed by the locals sitting under a tree chatting. Everyone was asking if I would like to see Adam and Carmen, I did indeed. These two passionate scuba divers have long experience in teaching scuba courses as well as conservation. They founded Turtle Watch Camp in 2015 which led to a great success. Recently they decided to move to PNG to help protect the mantas in the area.
It was like arriving in paradise. Gonubalabala is a little wonderland with white beaches and palm trees for the perfect postcard photo. The few houses of the 20 inhabitants are hidden behind trees and it is possible to feel how connected the local community still is with nature.
Everyone was friendly and smiling at me. I felt welcome and was excited to see more of the island, Carmen was showing me around. First we found Adam and a volunteer sitting at the beach in “the office” for the day as this spot seemed to have the best internet reception.
The Manta Watch Camp project relies on support by volunteers (they call them Manta Heroes) who want to escape everyday life and give something back through marine conservation in addition to working with the local community. The project works closely with the families of the beautiful island. The people are very open to visitors.
Just behind the office a group of locals are building a little house which will in the future be an additional home for volunteers. Manta Watch Camp organizes the material while the house will then belong to the family owning the land. Like this they will profit directly from the project and host the volunteers themselves.
All accommodation is located at the beach and built in the style of the local houses using locally sourced materials. To reduce the carbon footprint twice the number of trees that were cut down and used for new buildings are planted. Tribewanted, who build up community projects and co-living experiences, initiated the project on Gonubalabala in 2015 by building the first accommodation for travelers. The future plan is to build more homestays the local people can rent out to tourists as sustainable ecotourism.
The hut seemed almost finished for the next volunteer to move in, just the bathroom needed to be built. Writing about my experience on the island makes me want to be the next volunteer to live there. I fell in love with the place immediately.
Papua New Guinea
In general PNG was a positive surprise to me. Although you hear in the media that this country can be dangerous and I only had a few friends who had actually visited and recommended it to me, during my three weeks in Milne Bay I never felt in any danger and all the locals I have met during my stay were extremely friendly and helpful.
Papua New Guinea lies in the south-western Pacific Ocean north of Australia. The country is very diverse with many different tribes and over 800 spoken languages. Most of the 7 million inhabitants live in small villages where they live from agriculture and fishing.
Working with the community
Also working on the building site was the islands eldest inhabitant who will turn 93 years old in a few days, on the exact same day I was born. What a coincidence. Unfortunately I did not have enough time to stay and listen to his stories. He has witnessed the first and second World War and so much more and loves to share the anecdotes.
He and all the other members of the community are eager to tell their stories which have passed from generation to generation. The locals are skilled carpenters and fisherman, skills they are happy to teach to the volunteers spending their time with them.
In return the Manta Watch Camp works very closely with the community on the island to figure out key areas of their current living standards that drastically need help improving. Another focus lies on finding greener ways to live such as reducing plastic intake, dealing with waste management, installing solar power units or creating permaculture projects to help make the island more self-sustainable. Permaculture is the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient.
During the hot and dry summer periods the island has massive water shortages due to a lack of rain and so Manta Watch Camp identified early on that water was an area that needed addressing. The team recently purchased 2 fresh water tanks, which can collect enough rain water (9000L per tank) to see the island out for those tough months with no rain and supply the whole island with fresh distilled water. This type of action greatly reduces the need for buying expensive water elsewhere and of course on a conservation note, reduces the amount of plastic people are using.
The dive shop
The next stop on our island tour is the dive shop or right now rather a dive platform. In the future months a little dive shed will be built to store the dive gear and the compressor. This will then become a PADI dive training centre and also accommodate the manta research program. Both founders of Manta Watch Camp are instructors and will happily train divers up to dive master level.
The rest of the island is dominated by lush green and some houses where the locals live, the project founders among them. The living here is simple in basic huts with outside kitchens and no electricity except for a couple of solar cells to charge the gadgets.
The last building we visit during the little island tour is the educational center. The locals on Gonubalabala are interested in learning new things and overtime education and training will be one of the key aspects of the projects land based goals. They are open to learning about marine conservation and they are always happy to discover new and creative ways to make their living greener and more eco-friendly.
At the moment the educational workshops are primarily focused on marine conservation and research but as more people come to the island they hope to expand this into a broader syllabus. Using the current Manta Watch Camp team it is planned to launch new lessons in the New Year (2017) to help teach basic computing and word processing, English and maths and, for the more creative, photography and videography.
The Manta Camp Watch team is also planning to teach the islanders how to dive so they can become true ambassadors of the ocean and hopefully one day be able to run the whole project without any help. Guests who might have their TEFL qualifications, current teachers or even people with interesting skills are invited to share their knowledge with the team, the smart children of the island and anyone in the whole community who might take an interest in learning something new. In exchange, the locals will share their fascinating customs and traditions and provide each guest with a unique cultural experience that will never be forgotten.
The perfect spot
At the end of our little tour we walk along the beach to get to one of the most beautiful spots on the island – the postcard image spot with a palm tree just in the right position to take the perfect photo.
On the way we pass a man who is opening nuts with a rock. He is happy to show me how he is doing this, letting me take pictures and even gives me some nuts to try. They are very tasty and I am pretty sure this is something I have never tried before. Volunteers staying on the island for an extended period of time will for sure have many such fascinating interactions and opportunities with the local community. This is a truly unique chance to get to know a different culture and way of living.
Just outside of the village incredible things happen underwater. A manta cleaning station is located just off the beach attracting dozens of mantas every day.
Cleaning stations are certain areas underwater where cleaner fish live. Larger animals, like the mantas, will go there regularly to have their skin cleaned from parasites. During the process the mantas are circling around the cleaning station. For scuba divers and researchers these are the perfect places to observe the gentle giants.
The mantas visiting the waters around the island are the smaller reef mantas (Manta alfredi) that can reach a size of 5.5m. The larger oceanic mantas can reach up to 7m. Both manta ray species are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN red list. The main threats for mantas are pollution, fishing, black market trade (their gills are believed to have medical benefits) and entanglement in fishing lines. Their slow reproduction cycle increases the threat.
Little is known about the behavior and life cycle of these gentle giants. That’s where the project comes in. Manta Watch Camp conducts daily research dives to collect ID data which will be added to a database and shared with similar projects worldwide. This research will allow gaining valuable information, scientific discoveries and a platform to conserve the local marine habitat. Manta Watch Camp partners with Conservation International and Manta Trust.
In addition a tagging project has been launched using GPS live trackers that will provide even more insights by providing information about movements and behavioral patterns. The tracker allows following the manta real time. You have the chance to help out here without volunteering and sponsor a tracker. This also makes a wonderful present including VIP access to the live GPS Manta tracker, photos and much more. If you are interested check out the Manta Watch Camp page (scroll down to “Donate”). So far 3 mantas have been tagged and 6 further tags have been sponsored.
Volunteers will help to monitor the reef and to protect the resident manta rays by taking ID photos of the mantas’ bellies which show a unique pattern on each individual. By assisting the on-site marine biologist the volunteers will learn about marine conservation and research. Through this volunteers will not only learn to dive or improve their diving skills, but also learn how to take awesome underwater photography. The photos are then analyzed and shared in the database.
Through all the efforts combined the team is hoping to gain more insights into behavioral patterns, population numbers, lifespan and migration routes while keeping a close eye on the condition of the reef and the surrounding marine habitat. The gathered information will hopefully provide a basis for improved conservation strategies.
Besides the majestic mantas the area around Gonubalabala has incredible macro life. In the sandy areas just off the island a huge variety of small rare critters can be observed. Milne Bay is famous for its macro life and the muck diving (diving over sand or other mucky substrate looking for small rare critters) is among the best in the world. That was also the reason of my visit. I was on a 12 day muck liveaboard trip through the area and one stop was the sand in front of the island.
For divers who are not into the smallest creatures the area also offers the most pristine and diverse coral reefs I have ever seen. The amount of fish life is incredible. It is also possible to see other large pelagics like sharks. I was lucky enough to see two hammerhead sharks during one of the reef dives and a little school of devil rays. These dive sites can be reached from Gonubalabala by a short boat ride.
The team is also doing exploratory dives to identify new dive sites for fun diving as well as additional areas that might need protection.
All in all, this project is a perfect combination between immersing yourself in a local community on a remote paradise island with marine conservation and the best diving in the world. Is there anything more to add?
Of course all that does not come for free. I have heard the question many times why should you have to pay for volunteer work. Basically the payment is the funding of the project. It is a common practice across the world with all types of projects that volunteers pay for their experience.
Manta Camp Watch is very transparent with what happens with all the money. 85% of the money goes directly back into the community. As a non-profit organization they rely on funds from the goodwill of their amazing volunteers or generous donors to help the project stay afloat. All the projects described above would not be possible without the funds by the volunteers.
For example the funds directly helped with the building and renovations through providing the material
and also a small income for the local island carpenters and skilled builders from the community. Over time they plan to create more jobs for the locals. At the moment there is an income for homestay owners, chefs and builders. In the future they will provide more jobs exclusively for the local islanders in area such as boat operators, mechanics and hopefully one day PADI divemasters too.
And after all it is most probably the most economical way to dive this paradise and the work is supposed to be fun with daily diving and a lot of interaction with the local community. So, all in all, this is a wonderful way of sustainable ecotourism.
So by now you might have learned that I am very fond of this project. There is so much more than the marine conservation aspect. I was impressed by the openness of the community, how they are keen to interact with visitors and share skills. The cultural experience for volunteers is unique in one of the least explored countries of our planet. The island is incredibly beautiful and the diving is the best in the world.
For anyone who wants to learn more about the project please visit Manta Camp Watch.