WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHY by Phill Sargeant
ILLUSTRATION & TYPOGRAPHY by Katherine Hall

Underwater photographer, diving fanatic and all-round frother, Phill Sargeant, talks about his life-changing experience of diving with sea horses in Cambodia and the inspirational work that Marine Conservation Cambodia are doing to protect these delicate creatures.

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When I talk about my interactions with the sea, I’m usually referring to some sick session I’ve just come from or an awesome dive I’ve just had. But there are times when it’s necessary to talk about the seriousness of our (the human race) interactions with the marine world and the changes they will have forever. I’m sure you would agree that a large percentage of current discussions involving the oceans, although utterly justified in building awareness, focus entirely on the negative; when will we learn of the benefits of preventing overfishing, reducing coastal urbanisation or abolishment of toxic dumping? But as with any lesson, we should spend an equal amount of time emphasising praise for those who are nailing it. We should be commending the ‘little guys’ who are, step-by-step, really making a difference by carrying the torch and carving great examples into a new way of thinking and acting. Enter Marine Conservation Cambodia (MCC), a small but powerful little hub of brilliance located off the South West coast of Cambodia on an island called Koh Rong Samloem. The founder, Paul Ferber, and his family were acquainted with the area after diving the island chain as part of the emerging dive tourism around 2006. What they found there was another of those examples of true bliss—square hectares of relatively uninhabited, undamaged and flourishing tropical rainforest, miles of untouched coastal prettiness and a whole load of buzzing reefs to go and explore. True bliss indeed, except one small minor detail—its ideal position in the Gulf of Thailand and its bountiful sample of local fish made it a prime target for local Cambodian and Vietnamese fishing. Typical. It all looks so postcard perfect from the outset and indeed, from the actual postcards. However, this fishing that was taking place in and around the archipelago was causing some extreme damage. Never mind the endless dynamite fishing in the area blowing the reefs to pieces at the time of MCC starting up, the trawler nets were finishing off the flats.

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One underwater family in particular was taking an unnecessary battering, which was the final straw and major incentive for Paul establishing MCC. This was the local population of seahorses. When I was first with him as one of the crew of volunteers on the island, I asked him about his seahorse tattoos across his chest. All he could say was, “Have you ever seen a seahorse?” At that time I had to admit ‘no’ and felt like I was blaspheming to the wrong priest by being honest. But in typical Paul style, a smile quickly whipped across his face, and his response was simply, “You’ll want to remember them forever when you have.”  Words never truer and words I will never forget. The primary role for the island’s band of volunteers, which are supplied by various organisations, (MCC themselves through their website and UK-based Projects Abroad or Frontier Travel) is the ongoing protection and conservation of the seahorse species. Why? With all the fishing, trawling, destruction of the reefs and plains down there, seahorses are one of those casualties that almost go unnoticed. They aren’t great for food, as they aren’t very big. In fact, they are simply thrown back into the sea as carcasses or dried out on the pier and sent to places like China for a good grinding into paste.

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They are one of those species that won’t give you magnificent tail slaps on their migration to the poles or award-winning footage jumping through their own bubble rings, but will cause major issues when they disappear unnoticed. You see, this is one of the major problems of this little crustacean-catching critter. They exist ‘unnoticed’ in the wild and very little information is known about them, to the point that we don’t even know if they are under threat. We don’t know how many species there are or what we are losing. We have little knowledge about their distribution or what they like for breakfast. However, what we do know is that they are said to exist in such small spaces (males spend their days in 1m square), only 0.5% babies will make it to maturity and a mere 1% of the global population will ever see one in their entire lives (if they’re lucky).

But I have had the pleasure of encounters and interactions with this creature, and I can wholeheartedly confirm its existence. Paul and the team at MCC continue to dedicate study to them, in order to learn about their habits and habitats, while working to protect them. The team have had such huge successes in the last few years, with their hard work starting to pay off. The Cambodian Government has granted their on-island community a Marine Protected Area, they have installed patrol support to minimise destructive fishing and they have been able to establish their local seahorse species presence on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) wild fauna and flora list. This last achievement has played a significant role in the continued protection and hopeful funding of the MCC project.

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This is just one example of what is taking place out in our oceans and what individuals are achieving along the path of global species protection and overall conservation. We know that the food chains and ecosystems are a carefully balanced machine, where one change can have a butterfly effect through all the levels, and so it’s work like this that needs to praised and rewarded. Through my time there, I had the pleasure to dive with all sorts of species I had never encountered before, such as bamboo sharks and decorator crabs; neither of which are considered rare or even particularly interesting, but exist in perfect unity with the localised environment. But no encounter got me as stoked as my first with a seahorse. Similar to riding your first wave, this tiny, precious and seemingly insignificant creature left a lasting impression that changed my life. There is nothing more transfixing or captivating than watching a pregnant male seahorse sustain its mass of eggs in a current or watch a courting pair balance precariously on the closest, (not always) most stable piece of sea grass or reef. There is always something magical about them that will keep you there for ages. Time and time again, I hear of achievements being made globally, similar to that of the conservation of these creatures, and it takes me back to the time I had in Cambodia working with the seahorses. It always reminds me that if one person can have such a significant impact on the protection of one local species existence, imagine what 6 billion peoples positive impact could have. It’s worth a thought.

Check out Phill\’s blog or see more of his photographic work at his website here. More of Katherine\’s work can be seen at here website or via her blog here. You can also support the work of Marine Conservation Cambodia here.